April 28 marks the celebration of World Day for Safety and Health at Work, proclaimed by the International Labor Organization (ILO). The celebration consists of an international campaign aimed at promoting safe, healthy and decent work. It also honors the victims of occupational accidents and diseases. Currently, one of the topics raising the most concern is the impact of telework on occupational health.
On February 2, 2022, the ILO released a new technical brief on healthy and safe telework, drawn up together with the World Health Organization (WHO), in which the two United Nations agencies set out recommendations on how to make hybrid work and telework safe and productive.
The health and social measures introduced because of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an unprecedented transition to telework in many sectors and regions around the world. In Europe, for example, the proportion of workers engaged in telework increased from 11% to 48% during the pandemic.
This scenario gave rise to much talk about the benefits brought about by telework, such as the improved work-life balance, the possibility of a flexible schedule that provides more time for physical activity, the reduction in traffic in cities and in travel time, and the decrease in air pollution. All of this can contribute to improving workers’ mental and physical health. Telework can also lead to increased productivity and reduced operating cost for many companies.
However, the brief published by the ILO warns that, without proper planning and without paying attention to workers’ health and safety, telework can have an adverse impact on the physical and psychological health and social wellbeing of the individuals who work remotely. It can result in isolation, loneliness, stress and anxiety, musculoskeletal disorders and eye strain, among others.
Governments, employers and workers, in addition to occupational health services, should focus on avoiding or reducing these risks as much as possible, as the ILO has been requiring since the publication of the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155).
Among the measures that the brief urges employers to implement are: ensuring that workers receive adequate equipment to complete their tasks; providing pertinent information, guidelines and training to reduce the psychosocial and emotional health effect of telework, training managers in effective risk management, distance leadership and workplace health promotion, and establishing the “right to disconnect” and to enough rest days.
As regards occupational health and occupational risk prevention services, the brief states that they should be capable of providing ergonomic, mental health and psychosocial support to teleworkers, by expanding their delivery channels. New channels could include mobile applications that allow for immediate consultations, the conduct of online risk assessments and the implementation of digital tools for mental health.
In light of this significant day, it is important not to forget the multiple physical and mental health benefits that telework offers to workers. However, it is essential that this type of work be implemented without risks for workers’ health and safety, always in keeping with the pertinent Spanish legislation