Occupational health

Health workers

Health worker occupational health


A health care facility is a workplace as well as a place for receiving and giving care. Health care facilities around the world employ over 59 million workers who are exposed to a complex variety of health and safety hazards everyday including:

  • biological hazards, such as TB, Hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, SARS;
  • chemical hazards, such as, glutaraldehyde, ethylene oxide;
  • physical hazards, such as noise, radiation, slips trips and falls;
  • ergonomic hazards, such as heavy lifting;
  • psychosocial hazards, such as shiftwork, violence and stress;
  • fire and explosion hazards, such as using oxygen, alcohol sanitizing gels; and
  • electrical hazards, such as frayed electrical cords.

Health-care workers (HCWs) need protection from these workplace hazards just as much as do mining or construction workers. Yet, because their job is to care for the sick and injured, HCWs are often viewed as “immune” to injury or illness. Their patients come first. They are often expected to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of their patients. Indeed health protecting health-care workers has the added benefit to contributing to quality patient care and health system strengthening. Some of the same measures to protect patients from infections, such as adequate staffing, protect health-care workers from injury.

The 2006 World Health Report Working Together for Health on human resources reported on a global shortage of health personnel which had reached crisis level in 57 countries. And called for the support and protection of the health workforce.

Unsafe working conditions contribute to health worker attrition in many countries due to work-related illness and injury and the resulting fear of health workers of occupational infection, including from HIV and Tuberculosis. The 2006 World Health Report Working Together for Health reported on a severe health workforce crisis In fifty-seven countries, most of them in Africa and Asia.

Protecting the occupational health of health workers is critical to having an adequate workforce of trained and healthy health personnel.

The WHO Global Plan of Action on workers health calls on all member states to develop national programmes for health worker occupational health. (see Objective 1) and for WHO to develop national campaigns for immunizing health workers against hepatitis B. Among health workers infected with hepatitis B, the WHO global burden of disease from sharps injuries to health-care workers showed that 37% of the hepatitis B among health workers was the result of occupational exposure. Infection with the hepatitis B virus is 95% preventable with immunization but less than 20% of health worker in some regions of the world have received all three doses needed for immunity.

While less than 10% of the HIV among health workers is the result of an exposure at work, needlestick injuries, the cause of 95% of the HIV occupational seroconversions, are preventable with practical, low-cost measures and have the co-benefit of preventing exposure to other bloodborne viruses and bacteria.

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