Future of COVID-19 in the workplace

 Workplace Safety and Health Association (WSHA) together with the Chamber Academy conducted a webinar on Workplace, COVID Vaccine and the Future.

The Workplace Safety and Health Association (WSHA), in collaboration with the Chamber Academy of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, recently conducted a webinar on insights and awareness on the future of COVID-19 in the workplace. 

The panel comprised of Dr. Susie Perera, Consultant Community Physician, Deputy Director General Public Health Services of Ministry of Health; Professor Ewan Macdonald OBE, Consultant Occupational Physician, Head of the Healthy Working Lives Group, University of Glasgow; Professor Anne Harris, President of Society of Occupational Medicine, U.K.; Ms. Louise Burt, Hygiene & Containment Manager for GlaxoSmithKline (Asia Pacific region); Dr. Changa Kurukularatne, Specialist in Infectious Diseases, Internal Medicine and Outbreak Management; and Mr. Artha Salgado, Associate Director EHS and Risk Management (APAC), Ansell. The program was moderated by Dr. Aseni Wickramatillake, Advisor in Occupational Health and Hygiene. 

 Professor Ewan Macdonald

In her opening remarks, Dr. Perera noted that Sri Lanka has reached the protracted phase of COVID-19 transmission, and that it is important to have control measures specifically to industry needs. “We have been good at containing and have been successful in controlling the spread, yet we must be proactive to identify possibilities of spread” Dr. Perera noted. She further stated “workplaces are expected to adopt the guidelines and provide assurance to local health and administrative authorities to be compliant with preventative measures.”

Professor Anne Harriss explained how the process of hazard and risk control may be achieved through identification of hazards, and evaluation and implementation of the hierarchy of controls. She stated that periodic review of hazards, risks, and the control measures are necessary due to the constant change in knowledge and circumstances. She further specified that people over the age of 70 years, those with underlying health conditions, those who are significantly overweight, and those with suppressed immune systems are at greater risk of developing severe COVID-19. 

Addressing the issue of Long Covid, Professor Ewan Macdonald, defined the condition as symptoms persisting for more than 12 weeks after the initial infection. In the UK, it is estimated that 10% of all cases have symptoms of Long Covid, severely impacting the workforce and the economy. Employees with Long Covid may not be able to return to work as swiftly, or return to their prior full workload, due to limitations caused by Long Covid symptoms. 

Dr. Changa Kurukularatne explained how a personis contagious prior to the onset of symptoms in COVID-19.  The proper use offacemasks, maintaining safe distance, hand hygiene and good ventilation within enclosed spaces were therefore necessary even in the absence of symptoms. Dr. Kurukularatne emphasized that the vaccine is primarily geared to prevent severe disease, hospitalization and deaths rather than to prevent transmission, underscoring the importance of preventative measures even in vaccinerecipients. Dr. Kurukularatne concluded by sharing eight practices necessary to maintain a strong and healthy immune system. 

Ms. Louise Burt highlighted the fact that COVID-19 is a biological hazard, and therefore, risk mitigation methods should be similar to any other biological workplace hazard. She explained that surgical masks prevent the wearers from expelling droplets into the environment, and that respirator masks filter the inhaled air to keep the wearer safe from airborne agents.  Ms. Burt pointed out that masks with exhalation valves should not be used in the workplace, as it does not effectively prevent the wearer from contaminating the environment. 

Mr. Artha Salgado strongly advised organizations to master the basics, which includes employee screening, the correct use of facemasks, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and surface sanitization.  Failure in these control measures can result in COVID-19spread within an organization. The critical nature of these control measure should be well communicated within the organization and its community, and theireffectiveness monitored through an integrated auditing process. Mr. Salgado also emphasized the need to work collaboratively in cross-functional teams so that HR and Safety personnel are not overwhelmed, and run the risk of burn-out.

Both Professor Harris and Mr. Salgado spoke on the importance of protecting the mental health of employees and providing suitable guidance to prevent ‘Pandemic Fatigue’.  Poor mental health can adversely affect a person’s physical well being, leading to poor immune function and increased susceptibility to infection. A work force affected by depression, anxiety and fatigue can have long-term impacts on the productivity of an organization and the country as a whole, and add to an already over-burdened healthcare system, if not addressed early on. 

The Workplace Safety & Health Association (WSHA) has been established by a team of qualified and competent Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) professionals in the private sector to act as the main representative body for OSH professionals in Sri Lanka. WSHA is a non-profit organization, and represents Sri Lanka in the Asia-Pacific Occupational Safety and Health Organization (APOSHO).

A recording of this webinar may be accessed through the Academy of the Chamber of Commerce’s YouTube Page.