Monday, June 27, 2022

CONVERSATION FROM WEBINAR ON ASBESTOS PREVALENCE IN AFRICA ORGANISED BY OSHAFRICA

Extract of discussions put together by:

Debbie Myer

Ehi Iden


OSHAfrica, in collaboration with Asbestos Disease Awareness Organisation (ADAO), National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), African Union Development Agency (AU-DA) recently hosted a successful webinar on Asbestos.  Moderated by Ehi Iden President of OSHAfrica with Linda Reinstein CEO of ADAO (USA) gave the keynote address Other participating speakers were Dr Dingani Moyo (Zimbabwe), Norman Khoza (South Africa) and Wale Bakare (Nigeria), with guest appearances of Alec Farquhar, co-ordinator of Asbestos-Free Canada and Kevin Hedges on the Board of Directors of Workplace Health without Borders (WHWB). Participants were welcomed by Dr Thuthula Balfour Vice-President, OSHAfrica who commented that asbestos still causes a lot of ill health on our continent and she launched the webinar which ran for almost two hours.                                                                                  

To set the scene, Iden gave us the shocking statistics that only 7 countries in Africa - South Africa, Algeria, Egypt, Djibouti, Gabon, Mauritius and Mozambique - have legislated against asbestos. He then continued “Asbestos is known to have hazardous properties, yet it is still used in Africa, even though it is the cause of ill health and cancer leading to a certain death. We desperately need to do further research, but Africa unfortunately suffers from data gap prohibiting this research. We know that for over 100 years Africa was the highest exporter of asbestos in the world” He then asked “Why are governments so quiet?” before handing over to Linda Reinstein. 

Linda Reinstein, President of ADAO resides in America and opened with the sobering statement that although America has a long and tragic history with asbestos, it still continues to import this deadly product. She shared a slide which illustrated that during 1906, the first asbestos-related disease was recorded. That was 116 years ago, and yet it continues to be mined and used, even though its dangers are broadly known. Asbestos is found in many products, from industrial to household products, and to illustrate her point, Reinstein showed us a photo of children’s crayons.

Often the problem comes down to ignorance. Worldwide there are still 5 asbestos producing countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Brazil and Zimbabwe .It is unlikely that mining in these countries will stop anytime soon, therefore, it is necessary for everyone to be properly educated in the dangers of asbestos. Workers especially those who handle asbestos, or work near it must be educated in its dangers and trained in its safe handling. Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen. And with tragic consequences, the industry sometimes uses misinformation to get their product sold. Available statistics tell us that 250,000 people worldwide are still dying as a result of exposure. But due to the lack of data, especially in Africa where many people die in the rural areas with no record of their causes of death, these figures are probably way higher. Those companies who do not honestly track the causes of their employees’ deaths, must also take part of the blame.

With asbestos found in so many places, dangerous levels of exposure increase during times of disaster. This was seen after the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre when buildings collapsed and asbestos dust filled the environment. The tragic consequences will be felt for many years to come. There is also a danger of secondary exposure when a worker returns home still wearing the same clothes he wore at work which are covered in asbestos dust. Reinstein’s interest in asbestos started after her husband, Allen succumbed to Mesothelioma. She spoke about Allen, about his illness, about the time they still had.

together when he was ill, and then she spoke about the loss to her family. There are millions of other Allen Reinstein's, but they are all anonymous to us. My father Alec and his younger brother Isaac were also victims of asbestos, both losing their lives to mesothelioma during the 1990s. They worked in different places and lived in different cities. Isaac was a sheet metal worker and Alec worked in a factory that cleaned bags which were used to transport asbestos. The workers were not supplied with PPE and there was no ventilation. At the time he didn’t know about the dangers of asbestos and nor did any of the 80 workers he spent his days with. It was the early 70s and although Doctors already knew about its deadly effects, there was no public awareness. When he was diagnosed and asked where he could have picked up the disease, he couldn’t remember at first. Working with asbestos at the time seemed a non-event. Twenty years later it was no longer a non-event. When we tried to find out how many of the other workers had also died from asbestos exposure or were living with ill health due to it, we found that all documentation was lost during a fire, leaving us with no data.

Reinstein then raised the point that living near good medical facilities, Allen had good medical care throughout his illness. But worldwide, many sufferers don’t have that luxury. They live in rural areas far from any hospital and good treatment is out of their reach. It is for this reason she emphasized that all countries must act as one. All countries must collaborate, communicate and act together to get asbestos banned and populations educated about its exposure.

“I think that international companies should be held responsible. Countries that have no asbestos legislation need to know that they must have prevention methodologies and occupational medicine interaction. Along the way, we will have many failures, but we must turn those failures into successes. Asbestos knows no boundaries and borders. We must embrace education, advocacy and community support and take it to the next level so that everyone knows what we know. Can we prevent exposure to asbestos to eliminate the disease? I say yes!” she concluded.

Occupational Medicine, Health and Hygiene

Ehi then introduced Dr. Dingani Moyo who opened with the statement “Africa has been the biggest exporter of asbestos for over 100 years. This is a painful truth and it’s our responsibility to do things differently going forward”. Asbestos exposure cannot be solved in isolation, it is part of the occupational health and safety discipline. But, access to OSH world over is only at 15%, and even less in Africa leaving a holistic approach to OSH still a fantasy. A strategic paradigm therefore needs to be embraced which will see the development of organised OHS services, and asbestos an occupational health hazard that must be managed in a systematic way by all countries. Its elimination and management must be looked at holistically, all the way from mining to usage to the supply of PPE otherwise it will continue to be with us for even longer than is necessary.

The long latency period from exposure adds to the difficulty of its management and will see it being part of the occupational health discipline for a long time to come. Although primary prevention is vital, it is too late for the millions who have already been exposed. Exposure that may have happened during their past working lives, from living near asbestos mines, or other high risk areas such as railway lines, or even children who played in asbestos dumps. The frightening reality is that even those countries who have banned asbestos, still carry a heavy burden of asbestos related diseases amongst their populations who are daily presenting with the illness. Surveillance systems must be put into place for those already exposed, and medical facilities to take care of these people who present with the disease and who need psychological support is necessary. Thousands of people are suffering now and thousands more will develop the disease and suffer into the future. Even if we see total elimination now, the disease will live with us for many years to come.

“It is a challenge for every country to manage this ongoing problem properly. We need to build capacity in the field of OSH to spread the word and therefore create awareness. We need to embark on evidence based knowledge and to characterize the burden of these problems in our countries. Even those countries who have banned asbestos cannot be complacent”, concluded Dr. Moyo.

Policy and Political Commitment

Norman Khoza highlighted that although asbestos is an occupational and public health issue throughout the African continent, the African Union unfortunately still has a limited understanding of occupational health and safety and asbestos which is part of it. Too many countries in Africa do not have enough public health commitments, and poverty which is widespread also plays a role. With only 7 countries out of 54 having banned asbestos, this issue needs to be addressed urgently and changes in policy and political commitment need to be made. Awareness must be taken to the doorstep of parliament and our message must be packaged so that parliamentarians really understand the problem. Without a proper understanding, many governments and corporates will see it as a balancing act between the economy and health of the people. Asbestos is an occupational health hazard and for it to be properly managed, must be treated as such.

Management of the problem must start with political commitment through the implementation of national asbestos policies, implementation of regulations and declaration of protocols. Countries need to develop policies not only in the workplace, but also recreational facilities, hospitals, schools, anywhere that asbestos is found. Asbestos mines in our communities need to be identified, a list drawn up and strict legislation implemented. National asbestos strategies for the management of asbestos in factories, public and private institutions where asbestos can still be found must also be legislated. Thorough risk assessments must be done. Asbestos inventories are necessary to understand where asbestos is to be found and how to contain it. Where there is no budget available to remove it, then it must be contained with everyone understanding that it cannot be disturbed. If asbestos is not disturbed, it is not dangerous. But the lack of data on our continent remains the problem, we cannot achieve this without data. 

Khoza then gave some examples of asbestos usage on the continent: “Our problem is widespread. Last year we were summoned to assist in Lesotho after a storm damaged a huge hospital and hail damaged the roof which was made of asbestos. Until then there had been no problems with the hospital. But the storm changed all of that. I went with Dr. Moyo and other professionals to do an assessment and give advice. In other situations, I have seen photos of principals stand in front of their schools and behind them you see a piles of asbestos just lying around”. Using South Africa as an example where asbestos is legislated, Khoza then said that a lot can be learned from South Africa where laws and legislations are continually overhauled with exposure limits rewritten, updated and changed.

“The African Union is looking at a protocol that will govern operational authenticity and compel all African countries to sign and commit. Unfortunately, resistance and a lot of the problems lie with international companies who operate in Africa. Many of them apply different standards in Africa to what they apply in their home countries. This can be fought if governments in African countries are truly committed. It is sometimes hard to articulate the problems that we have. To achieve our goals, we need to hold policymakers accountable. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that we need to drive a data policy”, concluded Khoza.

Asbestos in Nigeria

Wale Bakare spoke mainly about the problems still experienced in Nigeria which he said “regretfully is not one of the countries that has banned asbestos”. Since 2011 the National Environmental Construction Regulations have been in place in Nigeria and Section 14 addresses asbestos. The updated National regulations now advise that asbestos should no longer be used in new construction, but even if this was achieved, the latency period of asbestos exposure remains a problem. During the oil boom of the late 1900s, asbestos was imported on a huge scale into the country. Housing developments sprung up using the cheapest products available which of course was asbestos. Now 30-40 years later many of these houses are degrading and asbestos fibres are being released into the living space of the occupants. This brings to the surface another hurdle the country faces which is the acute lack of awareness among the people who do not understand the inherent danger in the use and handling of asbestos. The challenge for the country is to achieve an all-encompassing ban.

In Nigeria, there is an appalling lack of data. Wale has tried to get data on how many people have actually lost their lives or suffered from an asbestos-related disease. As of 2018, the data available shows only 140 related asbestos diseases in the country, a country that has used over 1.1million tons of asbestos and has a population of over 200 million. “This is totally impossible” continued Wale “Some people don’t realise that they are suffering now from exposure of 40 years previously”.

During environmental awareness week in 2015, the Commissioner for Works in Lagos State advised people to remove all the asbestos roof sheets from the homes. Her intentions were good and she even suggested that they put the discarded sheets in the front of their homes which would be collected by the State. This well-meaning suggestion highlighted the lack of awareness of the dangers of asbestos - if a government official didn’t understand, you cannot expect the general population to understand. Since then there has been a marginal improvement in understanding and awareness, but it is still abysmally low and is the reason asbestos is not getting the attention it deserves.

Like his colleagues, Wale believes asbestos needs to be managed holistically. But motivating for a total ban in countries where asbestos is used for economic reasons will be met with resistance, especially among those who know that undamaged asbestos which is left alone is not a health risk. However, there are a lot of new building developments across the continent, where old houses are demolished to make way for modern ones and exposure is rife with dire consequences. Although asbestos was used extensively in roofing, flooring, plumbing and sanitation, very few precautions are taken when these houses are broken down.

“The New-Jack reaction is to rip-off anything that contains asbestos in your homes or workplaces. Please do not do that. Removal needs to be done in a safe manner, so rather leave them in place if they are not broken. No dose of asbestos is acceptable, no matter how small it is. We must synchronise our actions through OSHAfrica. Our countries must meet the minimum levels of education about asbestos. Everyone, in every country must be enlightened about asbestos. Minimum levels of precautions must be put into place. The disposal of asbestos must be strictly monitored. The menace of this material must be known”, concluded Wale Bakare.

Lessons from Canada and abroad

Illustrating the fact that the long latency period is a reality and a problem, Alec Farguhar, Co-ordinator of Asbestos-Free Canada told us that although Canada banned asbestos in 2018, they still have 2,000-4,000 deaths every year from asbestos cancer. Their fight to get asbestos banned was long and hard and took decades to achieve against the powerful Canadian asbestos industries, one of the most significant influential industries in the country. From 1880-2012 Canada exported vast quantities of asbestos from all over the world, directly causing the death of many. Canada now has a Workplace Health Without Borders working group on asbestos. With a lot of expertise in that group, their aim is to have an impact on the struggle and real frontline situation of workers with a focus on promoting substitutes for asbestos. “Hopefully other places won’t have to re-learn all the lessons we learned the hard way. You can pick up on our lessons. We know what it is like to fight a powerful adversary”, concluded Alec.

Kevin Hedges on the Board of Directors of Workplace Health without Borders, and a former President appeared briefly promising commitment and support from the organisation. 

Closing remarks

To drive home the point that is asbestos is dangerous and rife, Iden in his closing comments reminded us that asbestos is found in thousands of products we encounter on a daily basis and not only roofing sheets, fire blankets, water supply pipes, clutches, brake linings, gaskets of automobiles, both toys for children as well. Some products only have traces of asbestos, but many with high asbestos contents are silently infecting us. When asked if OSHAfrica is working together with the ILO, he confirmed they are. For example, together they are studying water contamination and looking at the implementation of monitored dumping sites across Africa where a disposal certificate must be supplied. In some of the countries where up to 70 percent of the population may be living in houses constructed with asbestos, the correct procedure for removal and disposal has to be taught.

OSHAfrica’s collaboration with many organisations both in Africa and beyond has put it onto a better pedestal to start driving an initiative across the continent, with this webinar as the starting point. He suggested that OSHAfrica should launch a movement to get petitions signed directed at countries that have not banned asbestos. He believes that if education campaigns across Africa were implemented, people would not buy asbestos knowing the risk. He also wants smokers to know that asbestos exposure for them will increase their chances of lung cancer. But to drive all these policies, data is needed, and data across Africa is lacking. Data can only be collected if governments are committed, if organisations and Doctors collate and provide the correct information and if medical support and care is taken to the rural areas.

To an overwhelming support, OSHAfrica agreed to form the African Asbestos Prevention and Control Programme. Participants were told it is their moral responsibility to go back to their country with this initiative, to make their policy makers accountable, and fight for changes, including a review in legislation and the improvement of working conditions.

“Some countries have a zero asbestos policy in their workplaces. In the UK, asbestos awareness training, the law compels anyone working in construction to undergo asbestos awareness training. We need to do the same. If we do not fix it now, our children and our grandchildren will become victims of our silence. We are morally bound for the future of Africa. We must all stand together and build the Africa that we want. We want the world to hear what we, OSHAfrica is doing.” concluded Iden.

OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY CHALLENGES IN WORKPLACE IMPROVEMENT IN AFRICA

 Ehi Iden – President, OSHAfrica

Oluranti Samuel, Lagos State University

 Africa has been documented as the region with the highest youth population as almost 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25 years (1). This should be a benefit to Africa but a high number of this population are not in education, employment or training (NEET) and this has made it difficult to leverage on this strength for positive gains (2). In the midst of these challenges, a number of youth who are fortunate enough to find employment feel threatened in their workplaces due to high level of workplace risks without adequate safety procedures and absence of social safety net (3).

While Africa has been at the centre of several global conversations on Workplace Safety and Health improvement, these conversations have not yielded much results due to lack of actionable commitment from various stakeholders. Amongst a number of variables is the poor leadership commitment to Occupational Safety and Health at regional, country and enterprise levels across Africa. Several meetings have been held in Africa where several heads of states have discussed this retinue of issues yet nothing tangible has come out of these meetings. These include the WHO-ILO joint efforts on Occupational Health and Safety in Africa held in March 2001 in Harare Zimbabwe, the Ouagadougou Convention of all African leaders held in Burkina Faso in 2004 and the Review of Occupational Health and Safety in Africa held in Benin Republic in 2005 (4). The subsequent outcomes or success of these meetings are difficult to track. For these efforts to cumulate into realistic results, we need multi-layer commitment towards health and safety in Africa. This lack of commitment has adversely affected both the growth of the workplace health and safety profession and implementation of safe processes in African workplaces.

The African region is characterised by grossly inadequate or non-existent workplace health and safety legislation and regulations. There is only so much that can be done in without effective legislation. The 2019 OSHAfrica conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, highlighted this as a key limitation to workplace health and safety growth in Africa. OSHAfrica announced  its ongoing efforts to review all existing legislation with the hope of working with African Union for a One-Africa Workplace Health and Safety Protocol. This project was significantly slowed down by the COVID-19 Pandemic but efforts are  still on course with legislation of over 40 countries already reviewed.

The legislation in several African countries was found to be obsolete and ineffective for the protection of worker health and safety in this day and age. It might be necessary to amend these documents to make them relevant to modern day realities. We must bear in mind that these laws govern health and safety within each sovereign state and until they are amended, workers will continue to be harmed.

The launch of the African Confederation Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) in May 2019 in a region with inadequate legal frameworks for workplace health and safety governance and regulation is worrisome. This agreement enables, for example, a Nigerian to freely trade in Gabon or Zambia or a Kenyan to freely trade in Egypt  or Cameroon without a unified regional health and safety legislative framework. I think, we need to rethink this process.

It is also difficult to clearly understand what level of funding that health and safety attracts in Africa. We can clearly assume that it is grossly underfunded. This can be seen in the quality and outcomes of work done by agencies of government across many countries in Africa. The Abuja Declaration of 2001 mandated all African Heads of States to increase their national healthcare budget to 15% (5).   19 years later, only South Africa and Rwanda have met the demand. With the state of healthcare in many countries, one can assume that workplace health and safety continues to be underfunded in Africa. This underfunding has handicapped regulatory government agencies. Of note is the insufficient number of workplace health and safety inspectors across Africa, leading to poor inspections. In most countries, there are workplaces that have not been inspected for over five years, making it difficult to know what goes on in these workplaces. Other challenges include the inadequate inspector training and unavailable resources needed to do the inspections. These all need urgent improvement (7).

The implementation of safe processes across African workplaces is also hindered by there being insufficient institutions for health and safety training and standardization. Few institutions offer health and safety courses in Africa. Some Africans have managed to access education in the West at a very high cost which very few families or individuals can afford. As a result there are very few qualified Occupational Health and Safety Practitioners in Africa while many are learn on-the-job and this is not safe.

When you do not set a standard, everything you see will look like a standard. There is the clear need for the region to have defined standard training requirements. For example, what constitutes a standard First Aid Training? What constitutes a standard Risk Assessment Training? What are the standard contents that must be found in these training modules and how many learning hours should we consider adequate? We do not currently have this in Africa and people offer different training programmes, applying whatever standards as they deem fit. This contributes to the lack of coherence in workplace health and safety practice in Africa. There have been cases where training certificates are turned down or rejected in other countries because they were below standard. The question is, what is the standard? And what certificates should be issued? Training programs need to be well defined and standardized across the continent.  If we get this right, this will created an opportunity for institutions of learning to develop health and safety programs into existing faculties.

As already mentioned, across the continent occupational health and safety legislation is grossly inadequate and, in most instances, obsolete. Where scanty pieces of the law exist, enforcement is poor. Safety and Health Inspectors, mostly from Ministries of Labour, are responsible for enforcement but they are either too few in number or not properly trained on their roles, and this makes enforcement difficult. Many have qualifications that are not related to occupational safety and health but get little training in employment and are deficient in the knowledge and may not be able to conduct effective inspections. Therefore, enforcement suffers as a result of these inadequacies.

Poor research capabilities in Africa by African health and safety practitioners is yet another challenge. We need to scale up occupational health and safety research capabilities. While there are pockets where research is done, improvement is required and more articles need to be published in accredited, peer-reviewed journals.  Research helps to identify problems and provides evidence to support the development of interventions. Practitioners should be trained in research methods and on how to secure funding for research. With this, Africa will be able to develop capacity in new areas, identify health and safety challenges and provide solutions instead of waiting for experts from the West to do the research.

The National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) in South Africa, is an ILO and WHO collaborating centre in Africa. This is good but there is the urgent need to set up smaller research centres across all four sub-regions in Africa. I suggest that such sub-regional centres as being closer to the issues and could conduct research locally while the NIOH assumes the role of an African flagship occupational health research centre. Every research carried out from these 4 smaller centres are all fed into NIOH as a regional repository. Researchers able to find a single source of materials for Occupational Health and Safety Research in Africa will be a good idea.

While there are many challenges in occupational health and safety and with implementation of improvements in workplaces in Africa, these problems can be fixed if we approach them in a more structured manner with honesty and commitment from all stakeholders. When you look at these issues, they are not so complex, they are not above us all. We can fix them with mindful use of the available resources and expertise from across Africa

What will be the eventual outcomes if we all commit to fixing these challenges? At the very least, employees’ families will live with the assurance that their loved ones will work in safe conditions and return home at the end of the day. This will make African workplaces safe and healthy to work in, saving time, cost and improving productivity.

 References

1. Kariba, F. (2020) “The Burgeoning Africa Youth Population: potential or Challenge” Cities Alliancehttps://www.citiesalliance.org/newsroom/news/cities-alliance-news/%C2%A0burgeoning-africa-youth-population-potential-or-challenge%C2%A0

2. Faria, J. (2021) “Rate of young people not in education, employment of training (NEET in Africa from 2012 -2021” Statista  https://www.statista.com/statistics/1266094/youth-neet-rate-in-africa/

3. World Health Organisation. Protecting Workers’ Health 2017 Nov 30 https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/protecting-workers'-health (accessed 30 May 2022)

4. Theron, A. (2016). “Africa to prioritise health and safety as an economic development determinant”. ESI-Africa. https://www.esi-africa.com/features-analysis/africa-to-prioritise-health-and-safety-as-an-economic-development-determinant/

5. Olarere, N., Gatome-Munyua, A. (2020) “Public Financing for Health in Africa: 15% of an Elephant is not 15% of a Chicken”. African Renewal. https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/october-2020/public-financing-health-africa-when-15-elephant-not-15-chicken

6. Biegon, J. (2020) “19 years ago today, African countries vowed to spend 15% on health”. African Arguments. https://africanarguments.org/2020/04/19-years-africa-15-health-abuja-declaration/

7. Mashwama, N., Aigbavboa, C., Thwala, W. (2019). Occupational Health and Safety Challenges Among Small and Medium Sized Enterprise Contractors in South Africa. In: Goossens, R. (eds) Advances in Social and Occupational Ergonomics. AHFE 2018. Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing, vol 792. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-94000-7_7

Monday, January 24, 2022

DO NOT JUST TRAIN YOUR EMPLOYEES, TRAIN THEIR FAMILIES ALONG!

Workplace health and safety processes, patterns and scope will continue to evolve along with the new workplace realities.

Trends have made us to realize the need to adopt employee/employee's family-centered approach as a decent workplace management system. When we employ a man or a woman, by extension, we have employed their families and this should be given due consideration in our management systems.


Employees' productivity, mental health and wellbeing are not an exclusive issue that have to do with the workplace, the home and family account for a huge deposit of the outcomes whether positive or negative. I am able to work and deliver comfortably because my home front is ok, the moment this changes, my work suffers.



Notably seen in most organizations, employees annual health assessment programs only cover the principal (employee) and never extended to his or her spouse and even in some systems where these are extended, only skeletal part of the programs gets approved. The truth is, when an employees spouse or any of his or her children suffers ill health, that employee suffers along side and the employer by extension also suffers.


Let me share an example.

A certain organization saw it necessary to train every employee on fire safety and response and at the end of the training, they bought extinguishers for all their employees to take home. This, i would have thought was fair enough but employees families were left out of these trainings. You only trained the principal to be available to respond to fire should it happen in the office but the most important critical element for his own safety were left out - the employees family.


Remember, the employees are hardly at home, they spent a higher number of their wake hours at work.


This fateful day, there was a fire outbreak in the residence of one of the employees, there were fire extinguishers but no one in the house knew how to operate them, the spouse took the children and ran to safety while they watched in tears everything that they had labored for went down in flames. Though fire fighters finally came to the rescue but not so much could be salvaged. It would have been a different story if the employees family were also trained on fire prevention and response.


Can we make workplace management systems more flexible & perhaps consider employees' families as extension of us also? We need more innovative approaches to workplace management system.


My name is Ehi Iden, i am an Occupational Health & Safety Management Consultant in Africa, i advocate for EMPLOYEE/EMPLOYEE'S FAMILY MANAGEMENT SYSTEM.


Sunday, August 8, 2021

Ergonomics Management in Remote Work


Dear Friends and Colleagues

Kindly find time to listen to this Ergonomics Management in Remote Work class which we had in April, 2021 with the whole aim of improving the knowledge of both employees and employers in safe teleworking which has been characterized with a very high burden or ergonomics. While preparing for this training, we took our time to review very recent literature and publications so we are able to understand perspectives from both employees and employers alike.

You need to sit back and go through this, you will be amazed where this is all headed and if you are still contemplating if workplaces will still return to their physical work nature, i totally doubt if that will happen again fully because the future of work that we have talked about for so long seems to have been brought into our present in a seemingly unprepared state but we need to learn and relearn in fitting in properly.

Remote work is for the present and also represents the future of work as it continues to improve.

Please leave us a comment if that is fine.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The State of Deskless Workforce: An Eye Opener Needing Our Collective Action.

 

I have worked within the field of Occupational Health and Safety for over 2 decades, the most interesting part of this profession is the dynamism and quick unearthing of new subject areas. I find this really exciting above everything else.

A short while ago, I came across a report titled “The State of Deskless Workforce 2021”, the word “Deskless” caught my attention and made me read the entire report which opened my mind to a new dimension of knowledge.

To a great extent, I have lived with the knowledge that some people work in spaces where they do not necessarily sit behind a system or the luxury of having a desk but I never knew they was an already categorised population of global workforce that falls within this bracket. According to the 2021 report from Quinyx, 2.7 billion workforce are deskless and this is nearly 80% of global workforce. These workers are so important, they are the heroes that keep our lives and economies running, they are the frontline workers found in healthcare systems, delivery drivers, bartenders, grocery store workers, security personnel, janitorial service workers and workers from manufacturing companies etc.


A deskless worker can be defined as anyone who do not sit behind a desk or computers to perform their job. These set of workers played a very crucial role during the pandemic when many countries were on lock-down, they did not have the luxury of working from homes instead they were daily on the roads serving us all and ensuring life goes on even when 22% of them do not feel safe at work because of COVID-19. They have been described in some studies as the forgotten workforce, underserved with technology and poorly managed by their employers. The deskless workforce honestly deserve to be better managed, have fair work schedules and a better work-life balance. As documented in the 2021 report, 51% of deskless workers go to work sick because they cannot afford to take time off, 21% do not feel appreciated at work, 57% said their personal care time suffer due to work schedule while 50% reported noticing understaffing issues mostly when you have to cover for a staff who did not come to work yet without an extra pay, these all put together affects these set of workers in a number of ways. These can also be linked to the high staff turnover suffered by organizations where this set of workers are employed. As stated in this report, 29% said they had to leave their jobs because of lack of notice in scheduling changes, I have personally seen this happen severally in the years I spent managing hospitals. We should not forget, workers feel more comfortable and secured in places where they feel appreciated and cared for. Because they are mostly not considered in the use of technology in their workplaces, communication between managers, staff and colleagues can therefore suffer. One key question that should be asked is, are this set of workers also considered in the future of work? While we make apps, cloud platforms and SaaS offerings for desk based workers, only 1% of business spending currently focus on deskless technologies. This was again validated with the 43% who said Managers do not have a tool or mobile app that makes it easy to swap shift with colleagues. It will be ideal to see more investments made in this direction towards alleviating most of the threats currently faced by the deskless work population.

Only 23% of deskless workers have paid sick time while 51% go to work sick because they cannot afford sick time off. Majority of them hardly have time for recovery from ill health because there is no paid sick time and this has a high possibility of triggering employees’ burnout and increased stress. It is high time that opinion leaders and wellbeing policy experts started lending their voices to the plight of this category of workers in terms of fair labour policies and flexibility of work. As already documented in the 2021 report, 35% of the workers said they would rather have flexible schedule than higher pay. This is the extent of these concerns.

Allowing employees to have control over their jobs is a strong ingredient towards mitigating psychosocial risks, human beings are not robots, they need that freedom to be expressive and if this is not happening, their creativity will be dampened and this is not is anyone’s best interest. Deskless workers who feel pressured to take shifts that they do not want was placed at 37%, while 32% of workers are unable to swap shifts with coworkers except they have to call their Managers first as reported by 55% of the study population. I think this has a high degree of contributing to presenteeism and rate of accidents among workers, optimal performance in workplace has a lot to do with the psychological readiness of employees and this must be clearly understood by both employers and line managers.

Motivation and incentive programs are mostly found lacking in most workplace management systems where profits are prioritized over the safety, health and wellbeing of employees. This report also shows that 50% of respondents noticed understaffing issues, mostly when you have to cover for workers who are absent from work without an extra pay. This body language again shows lack of care towards employees, we must keep in mind that employees flourish and make sacrifices in systems where they feel cared for and not otherwise. Also in this report, this has clearly obvious with 21% of the workers reporting that they do not feel appreciated at work and of this percentage of workers, 58% of them further indicated that their employers see them as disposable hence they contact workers during off hours for scheduling issues as reported by 79% of the population surveyed. This has a huge negative impact on employees’ morale and self-esteem leading to high staff turnover. I am happy to see some countries already putting up legislations that do not make employees accountable to respond to official emails after work hours. We have seen France being documented in 2017 as the first country to sign into law the “Right to Disconnect”. Under this law, the employee is not obligated to respond to emails from employers after work hours. We have seen countries like Philippines, Spain, and a few others implement this law while countries like Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, India, Quebec and the Federal Government of Canada have all proposed laws considering adopting this right. We really need to draw a clear line between personal time and work time, it is disrespectful to encroach into employees’ personal time which most times are done even without any consideration.

The truth is, when we read the entire Deskless Workforce Report 2021, you will agree with me that these are indeed the underserved majority who are neither considered in technological investments by organisations and in some instances, they are also poorly legislated for in most countries yet they are a nerve in global growing economies. Can thought leaders, captains of industries, policy makers, labour administrators, technology inventors and many others sit back for once and consider these sets of people in our designs, policy formulation processes, management systems and business processes?  It is better to consider their plights now and find ways around mitigating them than having an aged retired population of over 2 billion people characterized with work related illnesses to deal with in the future.

We can be good leaders if we consider empathy in our management systems and this will go a long way in reducing the prevalence of most of these workplace conditions such as stress, burnout, poor work-life balance, understaffing and non-flexible work schedule as rightly highlighted in this report. The need for a safe and decent workplace culture that places value on humanity above everything else. The deskless workforce are people we see daily around us, if we cannot fix their issues, let’s not also make their conditions more difficult for them by treating them less than humans. Empathy is placing yourself in another person’s shoes, apathy is showing lack of interest or concern in another person’s condition. If we must fix this growing concern, we all need to show honesty and agree that this is a workplace problem.

 You can reach the author

ehi@ohsm.com.ng


REFERENCES

Quinyx, The State of the Deskless Workforce 2021. Available from:  https://www.quinyx.com/en-us/deskless-workforce (accessed 2 Aug 2021).

 

Laroui, F. (2019). The Rise of Deskless Workers. https://www.exoplatform.com/blog/2019/08/20/the-rise-of-deskless-workers/ (accessed 2 Aug 2021)

 

Xuezhao, L. (2019) The Billion-Dollar Ideas That Transform The Deskless Workforce. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lanxuezhao/2019/06/17/the-billion-dollar-ideas-that-could-transform-the-deskless-workforce/?sh=38fa2be0a4fa (accessed 2 Aug 2021)

 

Morris, D. (2017). New French Law Bars Work Emails after Hours https://fortune.com/2017/01/01/french-right-to-disconnect-law/ (accesses 2 Aug 2021)

 

Ornstein, D, Collins E and Glassberg, J. ((2019) More Countries Consider Implementing a “Right to Disconnect” https://www.internationallaborlaw.com/2019/01/29/more-countries-consider-implementing-a-right-to-disconnect/ (accessed 2 Aug 2021)