Workers Health & Safety Centre

COVID precautions protect workers’ physical and mental health, study

Canadian health-care workers say they lacked adequate COVID-19 precautions during the pandemic’s first wave and new research finds this also contributes to poorer mental health.
 
With several provinces now experiencing a second wave of COVID infection, this new study offers important insights into the important role of workplace precautionary measures in protecting the physical and mental well-being of essential frontline health-care workers.

Adequacy of protective measures and mental health outcomes

The study, published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, is based upon the feedback of thousands of Canadian health-care workers who completed an online survey (April 7 to May 13, 2020) during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers Health & Safety Centre was among the first to share preliminary findings from this study through our Webinar series Confronting COVID-19.

The survey was developed by Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) in consultation with members of an ad hoc pandemic survey group consisting of union health and safety representatives, activists, and academics. 
 
Researchers set out to assess the perceived need and adequacy of eight types of personal protective equipment (PPE) (hand, eye, facial and respiratory protection) and 10 different infection control procedures (ICP) (e.g., screening incoming patients, ventilation systems, house cleaning/disinfection practices).
 
The survey also incorporated two scientifically-recognized screening tools to assess for potential clinical disorders (including anxiety and depression) and to estimate symptom severity.

Some 5,988 health-care workers completed the survey, the majority were female (91%), worked in hospitals (67%), and were from the province of Ontario (56%). One-fifth reported experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

Health-care workers are essential and vulnerable

Lessons from the SARS crisis appear to be repeated with COVID-19 as frontline health-care workers are not only at greater risk of infection, face increased workloads and inadequate workplace precautions, but they live with the constant fear of infecting loved ones. These factors contribute to occupational health and safety vulnerability and increase the risk of injury and illness according to research by the Institute for Work & Health who also helped develop the COVID health-care worker survey.
 
Of the workers who completed the COVID survey, those with lower reported health symptoms were also those whose PPE and ICP needs were largely being met. The study also found:
  • Respondents screened positive for anxiety symptoms (55%) and depression symptoms (42%)
  • Highest unmet needs were for:
    • PPE: N95 masks, surgical procedural masks, followed by face shields, eye protection, and gowns
    • IPC: personal hygiene and locker facilities, followed by screening of patients, having symptomatic patients wearing masks, and cleaning and disinfecting practices
  • Less than 20% of respondents had all of their PPE or ICP needs met
  • Variables associated with anxiety symptoms included: having PPE training needs not met, working in a long-term care facility (compared to a hospital), having COVID-19 symptoms, being in direct contact with COVID-19 patients, not knowing how many coworkers or patients in the facility have COVID-19. 
The study authors conclude, “Our results suggest strengthening employer-based infection control strategies could have important implications for mental health symptoms among health-care workers.”
 
A related study, based on a survey of non-health-care workers, is currently under review. Stay tuned for news of its release.
 
As we confront the second wave of COVID-19, these findings offer critical insights to better understand the pandemic’s short and long-term physical and mental health impact but more importantly to inform and help implement prevention strategies today. Adequate workplace precautions are urgently needed. According to another recent report, COVID-19 disproportionately affects racialized populations, precarious workers and low wage earners.

WHSC can help

In all we do, we put workers first.  After all, it is their lives and livelihoods that are affected most when workplace hazards, including the COVID-19 virus go uncontrolled. Now more than ever, essential to the pursuit of safer, healthier workplaces are properly trained joint health and safety committees (JHSC). For this reason, we have offered JHSC Certification training in safe, virtual classrooms throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so throughout this fall and winter.

Those workplaces without trained certified representatives will want to prioritize this training. Employers by law must "carry out" Certification training for at least two members of the JHSC, one worker representative and one management representative. (Although many workplaces are electing to train their entire committee.) By “carry out” the law means the employer must pay for the training and time spent training must be employer-paid time too. Certification training programs and those who deliver them must be approved by the Ministry of Labour’s Chief Prevention Officer. WHSC is one of the few approved providers to offer training in a virtual classroom.

Workers and especially JHSCs will also want to register for our COVID-19 training, as it offers critical insights into measures needed for the protection of workers, their families and communities. Equally important during these unprecedented times, this program is also delivered safely in our virtual classroom and priced at a nominal fee. Other essential programs delivered virtually include GHS-WHMIS.
 
To learn more: 
Visit: www.whsc.on.ca
Call: 1-888-869-7950
Email: contactus@whsc.on.ca