What research can do: Scanning how OHS authorities responded to the pandemic

A policy briefing by IWH finds common challenges in the way labour inspection authorities in different jurisdictions addressed the pandemic

Published: December 2, 2021

One of the issues that surfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic is the relationship and coordination between government occupational health and safety (OHS) authorities and their public health counterparts. It was certainly one of the themes that emerged in a project conducted by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) in early 2021. The project, which examined the way OHS authorities in developed countries responded to the pandemic, found some common challenges, as well as some notable innovations.

The project was led by Dr. Cameron Mustard, IWH president and senior scientist. The other members of the team were Dr. Greg Wagner at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Dr. David Michaels, former assistant secretary of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration; and Louise Logan, national project director of the XXII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work. The team developed a questionnaire that was completed by leaders at 15 selected OHS authorities in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. The findings were summarized in a recent Issue Briefing.

Although labour inspection authorities maintained contact with public health authorities at a strategic level on the prevention of COVID-19 transmission, operationally, the two worked separately for the most part. In most jurisdictions, contact tracing, outbreak investigations and vaccinations were solely the responsibility of public health authorities.

The briefing did note some exceptions. For example, in Singapore, the Ministry of Manpower worked closely with the Ministry of Health on contact tracing and outbreak investigations. And in the United Kingdom, the regulator Health & Safety Executive participated in infection management teams led by public health to help establish whether workplaces were potential causes of transmission.

Labour inspection authorities were also challenged when it came to conducting workplace inspections. In the early months, most curtailed or stopped on-site inspections, replacing all or most of them with some form of remote inspection (e.g. by video). Some inspectorates shifted toward education interventions as responses to complaints.

One jurisdiction, the State of Oregon, reported that inspections were carried out for only a small proportion of COVID-19-related complaints: Both because of our workload and because these were genuinely new and sometimes changing requirements, leaning hard into ‘education’ through use of the phone/ fax method made sense, so we have conducted inspections in roughly three per cent of the COVID-19 complaints where in normal circumstances about half of complaints result in inspections.

The questionnaire also asked respondents about the extent to which OHS authorities turned to new regulations in their responses to COVID-19. While laws and regulations specific to COVID-19 were introduced and implemented for public health, most labour inspection authorities relied on pre-existing OHS regulations, with a few exceptions noted in the briefing.

On the topic of workplace transmission data, the team found some inspection authorities maintained a database of inspection results, but most did not indicate that this data is publicly available. In most jurisdictions, labour inspection agencies did not maintain data on COVID-19 transmissions in workplaces. Some cited the difficulty of determining the source of transmission. In some jurisdictions, data has been kept by public health authorities on workplace outbreaks (i.e. cases where more than an established threshold number of workers have been infected), but this data is mostly available to the public only in aggregate form.

The briefing notes, however, that practices evolved over the course of the pandemic as workplaces got more attention as a potential source of transmission, and as OHS authorities accumulated experience. Coordination with public health authorities increased, as did their on-site inspection of workplaces. To read the full Issue Briefing, go to: www.iwh.on.ca/summaries/issue-briefing/ response-to-covid-19-gathering-experiences-of-ohs-authorities-in-developed-countries.