COVID-19 and OSH: Report from the World Congress Digital Meeting

COVID-19 and OSH: Report from the World Congress Digital Meeting

The World Congress Digital Meeting on 5-6 October 2020, was an opportunity to reflect on occupational safety and health in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thought leaders from around the world discussed emerging innovations in addressing COVID-19 in the workplace, how the future of work is being shaped by the global pandemic, and the relevance of promoting a culture of prevention. The virtual session was held as a special digital session of the XXII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Toronto.

The International Social Security Association (ISSA) organised and held three sessions during this event: (1) Vision Zero in Motion, (2) the International Media Festival for Prevention and (3) the Global Forum for Work Injury Insurance. This article reports on the overall takeaways from the World Congress Digital Meeting, as well as from the sessions organized by the ISSA.

Challenges and key takeaways from the World Congress Digital Meeting

During COVID-19, companies had to adapt to new working standards and the introduction of a new way of living. Millions of people have lost their jobs temporarily, while for others, the format of work changed. Technological upgrades brought about more remote jobs opportunities, but also a lack of personal contact, thus provoking psycho-social problems. Occupational disease recognition procedures had to be reformatted (especially in cases of COVID-19 unsafe working conditions) in order to provide ample protection. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Employment Injury Benefits Convention (C 121), workers have the right to a safe and healthy work environment, and this right has been jeopardized by the pandemic.

As a response to these challenges, social security institutions throughout the world have taken significant steps to provide comprehensive prevention coverage. In Canada, the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board introduced legislative changes to further the protection of workers and employers against the coronavirus impact. It was decidedto reallocate compensation money (or compensation funds) specifically for the coverage of COVID-19 insurance events in order to make sure employers regard coronavirus as an occupational disease. Furthermore, to ensure a proactive understanding of risk-exposure, most of the claims for the COVID-19 insurance pay-out in Saskatchewan province are proactive, since employees working in unsafe COVID-19 conditions apply for compensation in advance, before getting sick.

In an effort to provide better protection for workers, the Social Insurance Fund of the Russian Federation provided free COVID-19 testing services as well as personal protective equipment.

The self-employed and the informal sector have been suffering the most from the effects of the pandemic, with lockdowns and no possibility to earn a daily wage. As these workers are often the most difficult ones to reach and to provide coverage for in terms of social security, special programmes had to be developed to support this group. In East and Central Africa, communication strategies using mass text messaging, local radio, and TV programmes have proven to be the most effective ways of communicating with the informal sector workers, trying to motivate them to join and benefit from the social security system.

The Korea Workers' Compensation and Welfare Service (COMWEL) has developed a more digital approach: The Smart Work AAA system allows anyone to communicate with any device from anywhere. Already before the pandemic, 75 per cent of all official papers received by COMWEL (including applications, complaints and appeals) were sent and registered online. As soon as COVID-19 broke out, the practice of remote working could be adopted almost immediately, while the services continued as usual. The system also significantly reduced travel time to and from the office, and in order to avoid overwork, access to the system is limited to the regular working hours per week for each employee.

The German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV) and its statutory accident insurances produced COVID-19 guidelines for various work-settings. Special manuals for hundreds of businesses were made from scratch in just four weeks. They were digitally distributed to all employers to support every workplace with their prevention efforts.

Opening and panel discussions

The Special Session began with a welcome by the presidents of the Canadian host organizations, Dr Cameron Mustard, President of the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) and Anne Tennier, President of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). In his opening remarks, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder spoke of the COVID-19 crisis as one that calls for concerted action to ensure that worker safety and health are front and centre of pandemic responses, and for social security systems to be strengthened so that workers don't have to choose between life and livelihood. Professor Joachim Breuer, ISSA President, spoke of the more than 1,000 social security measures that have been developed or expanded in 200 countries since the start of the pandemic, as mapped by ISSA’s COVID-19 Country Monitor on Country Measures, and noted the gap between the developed and developing world in their ability to provide such responses. Filomena Tassi, Canadian Minister of Labour, warmly welcomed all participants, and spoke of measures to strengthen income support to workers and businesses, and of information sharing across levels of government to develop guidance for workplaces on worker protection.

The panellists pointed out that the most important development in addressing COVID-19 was the regular use of technology to facilitate information exchange. It  enabled a shift towards remote work, supported online training for workers  (e.g. in COVID-19 prevention measures) and it helped social security to reach out to the working populations currently not protected by regulatory measures—i.e. informal, precarious and migrant workers.

Furthermore, COVID-19 has laid bare the vulnerabilities of informal, temporary and gig workers, exacerbated by the changing world of work. Again, information and communication technology (ICT) solutions, such as mobile phones and the internet have helped to develop successful programmes to reach out to vulnerable groups.

Breakout Sessions

Promoting a culture of prevention to addressing COVID-19

In Breakout Session A, panellists stated that workplaces and sectors with a strong culture of prevention were able to draw on the assets of trust and teamwork among the workplace parties. Because of an already existing understanding of exposure to risk and need for risk prevention, they were also able to build on the existing strengths of a learning culture and the discipline of strong occupational health and safety management programmes to adapt rapidly to the challenges that COVID-19 posed to the protection of workers’ health. They therefore concluded that the promotion and maintenance of a culture of prevention is a tool that helps to address the COVID-19 challenges at the workplaces. Any Institution wishing to develop or strengthen its culture of prevention may also refer to Section B.9. (Promoting a Prevention Culture) of the ISSA Guidelines on Prevention of Occupational Risks.

Resilient and sustainable workplaces in the light of COVID-19

In Breakout Session B, panellists underscored the need to address gaps in social security systems to enable economic recovery. They also highlighted the value of a tripartite approach — involving employer, labour and government partners — in responding to the challenge of ensuring business continuity without sacrificing OSH.

Vision Zero in Motion

This ISSA Session, Breakout Session C, presented the new Vision Zero Proactive Leading Indicators and launched the new Vision Zero Training programme. Vision Zero is a transformational approach to prevention that integrates the three dimensions of safety, health and well-being at all levels of work. Launched in September 2017 by the International Social Security Association (ISSA), the programme quickly gathered support from governments and businesses around the world and has found a broad acceptance in the world of occupational health and safety professionals, organisations and companies. What started as a campaign has gradually become a strategy to improve prevention performance at all levels. Following the demands of the OSH community, The ISSA’s Special Commission on Prevention works with businesses, social security institutions, researchers and professional training providers to support the Vision Zero strategy with new products and services.

  • The new Vision Zero Proactive Leading Indicators are a milestone for bringing Vision Zero to the workplace. Instead of the check-list approach that is proposed in the original Vision Zero Guide, it offers a sophisticated system of measuring safety, health and wellbeing performance within the enterprise by meeting different, measurable indicators, which then provide a benchmarking tool for the company’s management of safety, health and wellbeing.
  • The new Vision Zero Accredited Training programme is based on a partnership between the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and the ISSA. As a COVID-19 captured world seeks a safer, better life, this training programme provides opportunities for professional trainers in occupational safety and health to use the IOSH certified training materials to bring Vision Zero to the company level and thus contribute to safer and healthier workplaces. During the launch, Marcelo Abi-Ramia Caetano, Secretary General of the ISSA, said: “By joining forces, the ISSA and IOSH will ensure the development of high-quality training capacity, building on the Vision Zero 7 Golden Rules. This is a crucial pillar to make advances towards the vision of a world without work-inflicted disease, injuries or fatalities.”
    More than 1300 OSH trainers have already signed up to Vision Zero and have conducted or promoted Vision Zero training.

International Media Festival for Prevention

The International Sections of the ISSA for Electricity, Gas and Water and on Information for Prevention have been organizing the International Media Festival for Prevention (IMFP) in the framework of the World Congress for Safety and Health at Work since 1990. This year was the first digital meeting, during which the 50 shortlisted projects of this year's festival were announced. The winners will be featured in September 2021, during the World Congress in Toronto.

The Global Forum for Work Injury Insurance

Hosted by the Social Insurance Fund of the Russian Federation and organized by the ISSA and its Technical Commission on Insurance against Employment Accidents and Occupational Diseases, the Global Forum for Work Injury Insurance, which brought together leading experts and researchers from social security institutions to discuss prevention related questions for workers compensation boards and occupational accident insurance schemes. The session focussed on various topics dedicated to prevention, communication, innovation, sustainability and resilience with a view to respond to pandemic outbreaks and extreme events such as COVID-19.

State Secretary and  Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Protection of the Russian Federation, Andrey Pudov stressed the need for the international community to join efforts against COVID-19 in all fields, including work injury insurance. The Russian Government has taken special risk minimization measures for medical employees and the most vulnerable employees (65+). As part of their support, and to facilitate submissions to state organizations, the Russian Social Insurance Fund made it possible for workers to claim work injury compensation and render services remotely. Mr Pudov stated that every work injury insurance should put their efforts into shifting its compensation payment policies towards the prevention of occupational diseases. The ISSA Guidelines on Prevention of Occupational Risks provide a blueprint on how to do this. The Social Insurance Fund of the Russian Federation also considers it as imperative to protect employees by removing harmful working conditions, and by introducing an occupational safety and health management system that helps monitoring the health of employee throughout their career paths.

The other panellists in that session stressed that one of the key aspects for a successful workers compensation system is the citizens' confidence in the social security authorities. These authorities must represent the interests of the insured in the political arena, forge new rules and convince businesses that health and safety is not an obstacle, but the basis of commercial success. Other important aspects include leadership, risk management and process continuity, new technical solutions such as online video conferences and  more flexible working arrangements, such as teleworking and flexible working hours for the staff. In order to ensure the positive public image of the institution, communications with internal and external audiences should be planned to the smallest detail. Another key area is data management and the access to databases from any device and resolve any issue, while keeping user data protected.

Access the video recordings of the World Congress Digital Meeting here. The next XXII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work will take place digitally 19–22 September 2021. For more information, please visit