Viewpoint: How to protect workers in the next pandemic

June 28, 2023—In preparation for the next public health emergency, lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic should be used to inform new federal, state, and local laws and standards, as well as actions by employers, aimed at ensuring safe, healthy workplaces, according to a Viewpoint article in JAMA.

Gregory Wagner, adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was a co-author of the June 16 article.

The authors pointed out that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency charged with ensuring safe and healthy workplace conditions, was limited in its power and made little impact on worker protection during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, “essential workers”—those in occupations such as meat processing, agriculture, warehousing, transportation, and corrections—and especially non-unionized workers, faced unnecessarily high levels of risk under employers that were underprepared and under-required to implement safety measures against an airborne disease. Research has shown that COVID-19 disproportionately endangered Black and Latino men.

The authors recommended several steps to ensure that workers are better protected in future pandemics, including:

  • The federal government should require employers to offer paid medical leave, and should provide more resources to OSHA.
  • Employers should improve workplace ventilation, filtration, and disinfection; reduce crowding; and providing personal protective equipment such as respirators.
  • OSHA should issue pandemic preparedness standards, conduct more inspections, and hand out tougher penalties.
  • State and local public health agencies should be empowered to protect people while they are at work, and should particularly commit to protecting disproportionately at risk.

Read the article in JAMA: Lessons From COVID-19 for Protecting Workers in the Next Pandemic