COVID-19: Challenges and opportunities in OHS and social security highlighted at global session

Despite diverse experiences, participants also raised common concerns at virtual global conference co-hosted by IWH and CCOHS

Published: November 11, 2020

In early October, the global community of occupational health and safety (OHS) and social security policy makers gathered virtually to discuss challenges and lessons learned as countries have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic emergency. The Special Session on COVID-19 and OHS was hosted by the organizers of the XXII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, a global event taking place September 19-22, 2021, in Toronto. The organizers include the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Safety and Security Association (ISSA), as well as the Canadian co-hosts, the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS).

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder opened the special session along with Canada’s Minister of Labour, the Honourable Filomena Tassi. Ryder spoke of the urgent need for concerted action in the COVID-19 crisis to ensure that worker health and safety are front and centre in national responses to the pandemic, and for social security systems to be strengthened so that workers do not have to choose between life and livelihood. He emphasized that protecting workers, labour rights, businesses and livelihoods must be a global priority throughout the current and future phases of the pandemic.

Countries around the world are grappling with very similar problems, albeit with disparate resources and different policy options. These common challenges provided the potential for rich exchange and learning across nations. That was on display at the October 5-6 virtual event, which had more than 4,500 policy-makers and practitioners in OHS and social security from over 150 countries registered to attend.

The special session was organized along the three themes of the World Congress: innovations in addressing long-standing OHS challenges; implications of the changing world of work for OHS; and advancing a culture of prevention. Below are some topics and issues that resonated throughout the session.

Occupational health and safety in the spotlight

Countries around the world are coming to the realization that economic recovery depends on effective workplace protections against COVID-19 infection. In certain regions, the demand has been at an all-time high for technical guidance from the ILO on measures to keep workplaces safe, said Vinicius Pinheiro, Regional Director, Latin America and the Caribbean at the ILO.

Salima Admi, Director of Labour, Ministry of Labour and Professional Integration, Morocco, described the COVID pandemic having accelerated the ratification of the ILO convention on OHS in her country. And speaking of the employer members in Belgium’s Federation of Enterprises, Senior Advisor Kris De Meester described a growing respect for OHS professionals. He also noted the flexibility and creativity with which OHS practitioners have adapted and applied sectoral guidance from state authorities.

Speakers also highlighted the importance of the culture of prevention as they described examples of workplaces adapting to rapidly changing guidance. Workplaces entering the pandemic with a strong culture of prevention—characterized by a culture of learning, mutual trust, worker participation and a disciplined approach to OHS—were better able to quickly develop safety practices and adjust them in response to evolving public health guidance. In Canada, examples of such successes were seen in the auto sector, where management and labour worked together during the initial two-month shutdown to develop safety practices for COVID-19 prevention, said IWH President Dr. Cameron Mustard.

Looking ahead, strong public messaging about the value of workplace health and safety may be needed to head off fatigue and non-compliance, similar to what public health agencies are encountering in a growing number of countries, said Dr. Edlyn Hoeller, Deputy Director-General, German Social Accident Insurance. Work accident insurers should send a clear message that health and safety is not a barrier to commercial success, but the foundation of such success. After all, who can be a more credible advocate for safety and health than the institutions that know the cost of not doing enough? she said.

Social security more crucial than ever

Presenters at the session highlighted the severe distress and suffering people in many countries are experiencing. They spoke of the pandemic laying bare the inadequacies of injury compensation, unemployment insurance and health-care insurance systems in many countries—and the growing recognition that strengthening such systems is a crucial part of the response to the coronavirus.

Some speakers gave examples of governments taking steps to fill in the gaps. ISSA President Joachim Breuer invited participants to visit the COVID Monitor, a compilation of about 1,600 social security measures that have been adopted or expanded in 208 countries and territories to address the health, social and economic impact of the crisis. However, he noted the shortage of such measures in countries with fewer resources. With a note of caution about a deepening cleavage between the have and have-not countries across the globe, Breuer called for international cooperation to help developing countries build better social security with broader coverage.

The gaps in social security coverage are many. Several panellists noted the size of the informal sector in their countries and the resulting exclusion of very large numbers of workers from regulatory protection and benefit programs. Some speakers highlighted the need to develop national and international labour standards for domestic work, maritime work and other sectors for which standards currently do not exist. Others focused on the challenges facing migrant workers for whom job loss also entails a loss of residency status, and called for an alignment between immigration or visa policies and labour policies.

Innovation by insurance providers

Several speakers commented on the agility with which insurance providers have had to respond to the needs of the moment. Not least was the challenge to migrate service delivery to online platforms. Speakers described innovations that some have adopted, from paperless claim submissions to video mediation hearings. From the Republic of Korea, Dong-Heon Kim, IT Director, Korea Workers' Compensation & Welfare Service, outlined the transformation of the organization’s service delivery to online platforms. We accomplished in two months what would otherwise take two years, he said.

Beyond operational issues, many insurance providers have also taken steps to amend coverage policies in response to emergency needs. One Canadian example was highlighted by Saskatchewan WCB CEO Phillip Germain. Within days of the emergency being declared in Canada, the agency adopted measures to encourage the reporting of COVID cases by offering cost relief to employers for COVID-19 claims; cost relief was also provided to injury claims that were extended due to a lack of health care or modified work options.

In Malaysia, the pandemic emergency has provided momentum to a government campaign to encourage informal workers to register for social security coverage. This initiative is expected to net benefits in the long term, said Dr. Azlan Darus, Division Head, Prevention, Medical and Rehabilitation at Malaysia’s Social Security Organization.

A coming challenge for insurance providers will be addressing the mental health of workers, participants stressed. Early evidence indicates that certain demographic groups may have greater difficulty in remote work situations than others, and the potential psychological toll on workers and their managers should not be underestimated.

Multilateral, tripartite approaches

According information provided by the ILO, in the first three months of the global pandemic, more than 130 of the 187 ILO member countries adopted bipartite or tripartite approaches in their responses. Speakers emphasized the value of social dialogue and of partnerships involving governments, businesses and workers.

Some also highlighted the importance of worker participation at the organizational level and the need to strengthen worker voice, especially among vulnerable workers. Employer representatives at the session also underlined the importance of governments giving leeway to workplaces to adapt public health directives to their circumstances.

In Canada, both the worker and employer representatives at one of the panels agreed that a commitment to dialogue and tripartite relationship was a key element in the country’s response to the pandemic.

Even prior to the pandemic, we had some good examples of worker, employer and government representatives working together to make sure health and safety is protected, and we need to look to those and build on those, said Tara Peel, National Representative, Health, Safety & Environment, Canadian Labour Congress.

Derrick Hynes, President and CEO of FETCO (Federally Regulated Employers – Transportation and Communications) spoke of similar examples. Within my membership, I have heard many stories of highly productive joint labour management responses to this crisis, he said.

Video recordings of the COVID-19 & OSH presentations are available on the XXII World Congress website. Go to: