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Although health workers constitute about 3% of the population in most countries, they comprise 14% of COVID-19 cases reported to the World Health Organization (WHO), and in some countries account for up to 35% of COVID cases. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted this in a September 17 statement and added, “The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded all of us of the vital role health workers play to relieve suffering and save lives.” As “one of the keys to keeping patients safe is keeping health workers safe,” on Thursday the Director-General issued a 5-point charter on healthcare worker safety in conjunction with Patient Safety Day.

The 5-point WHO charter urges its partner countries to:

1. Develop and implement national programs for the occupational health and safety of health workers

WHO recommends that education and training programs for health workers at all levels include health and safety skills in personal and patient safety and that healthcare licensing and accreditation standards incorporate requirements for staff and patient safety. Member countries should also review and upgrade national regulations and laws for occupational health and safety to ensure that all staff members have regulatory protection of their health and safety at work.

2. Protect health workers from violence in the workplace

Promote a culture of zero tolerance to violence against health workers. Labor laws, policies, and regulations need to be strengthened, and all healthcare workers should have access to ombudspersons and helplines to enable free and confidential reporting and support for any health worker facing violence.

3. Improve the mental health and psychological well-being of healthcare workers

Healthcare facilities must establish and maintain safe staffing levels, and ensure fair duration of deployments, working hours, and rest breaks. Mental and social support services, including advice on work-life balance, risk assessment, and mitigation should be readily available to all staff.

4. Protect healthcare staff from physical and biological hazards

Health care systems must implement patient safety, infection prevention and control, and occupational safety standards in all health care facilities. Facilities need to ensure availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), adequate quantity, appropriate fit, and acceptable quality. All facilities should maintain an adequate, locally held, buffer stock of PPE and provide workers with adequate training on appropriate use and safety precautions. Further, at-risk healthcare staff should receive vaccinations against all vaccine-preventable infections, and in the context of emergency response, be given priority access to newly licensed and available vaccines.

5. Connect the dots between policies on patient safety and healthcare worker safety

Institutions should integrate staff safety and patient safety incident reporting and learning systems, and define the linkages between occupational health and safety, patient safety, quality improvement, and infection prevention and control programs.

Regarding the latter point, the charter states that “No country, hospital or clinic can keep its patients safe unless it keeps its health workers safe.”

For more details on the charter see the WHO announcement, “Keep Health Workers Safe to Keep Patients Safe.”

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