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Occupational health: health workers


Health workers are all persons engaged in work actions whose primary intention is to improve health, including doctors, nurses, midwives, public health professionals, laboratory technicians , health technicians, medical and non-medical technicians, personal care workers, community health workers, healers and practitioners of traditional medicine. The term also includes health management and support workers such as cleaners, drivers, hospital administrators, district health managers and social workers, and other professional groups in activities related to health as defined by the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO-08).

Health workers are the backbone of any functioning health system. While contributing to the enjoyment of the right to health for all, health workers should also enjoy the right to healthy and safe working conditions to safeguard their own health.

Health workers face a range of occupational hazards associated with infections, unsafe patient handling, hazardous chemicals, radiation, heat and noise, psychosocial hazards, violence and harassment, injuries, inadequate supply of clean water, sanitation and hygiene.

Protecting the health and safety of healthcare workers should be part of the core business of the healthcare sector: protecting and restoring health without harming patients and workers.

Safeguarding the health, safety and well-being of health workers can prevent work-related illnesses and injuries, while improving the quality and safety of care, human resources for health and environmental sustainability in the health sector.

Safeguard the health, safety and well-being of health workers

Protecting the health and safety of health workers helps improve health worker productivity, job satisfaction and retention. It also facilitates the regulatory compliance of healthcare institutions with national occupational health and safety laws and regulations, taking into account the working conditions and occupational risks specific to the sector. Unsafe working conditions resulting in occupational illnesses, injuries and absenteeism represent a significant financial cost to the health sector. For example, in 2017 the annual costs of work-related illness and injury in the health and social care sector in Britain were the highest of any sector, estimated at the equivalent of $3.38 billion. US. (1).

Globally, improving the health, safety and well-being of healthcare workers reduces the costs of occupational injuries (estimated at up to 2% of healthcare expenditure) and helps to minimize the harm to patients (estimated at up to 12% of healthcare costs) (2). In addition, the implementation of key interventions to protect the health and safety of health workers contributes to increasing the resilience of health services in the face of epidemics and public health emergencies and contributes to strengthening the performance of health systems. by: 1) preventing occupational illnesses and injuries; and 2) protect and promote the health, safety and well-being of healthcare workers, thereby improving the quality and safety of patient care, healthcare workforce management and environmental sustainability.

Policy measures

Only a third of countries have a national policy instrument to protect the health, safety and well-being of health workers. Based on the experience of these countries, the following policy interventions have been shown to be beneficial for the protection of health workers:

  • introduce new regulations, standards and codes of practice and update existing ones to protect the health and safety of health workers;
  • make the protection of the health and safety of health workers an integral part of health care management at all levels;
  • create mechanisms and build capacity for occupational health and safety management in the health sector at national, subnational and facility levels;
  • expand the coverage of health workers with competent occupational health services, including for risk assessment and management, health surveillance, immunization and psychosocial support; and
  • establish collaboration with employers’ and health workers’ organizations to improve working conditions.

Responsibilities and rights

While employers have a general responsibility to ensure that all necessary preventive and protective measures are taken to minimize occupational risks, health workers have a responsibility to cooperate with management and participate in workplace protective measures. their health, safety and well-being.

Health workers have the right to remove themselves from a work situation which they have reasonable grounds to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to their life or health. When a staff member exercises this right, they are protected from any undue consequences.

WHO response

In 2022, with resolution WHA74.14 on protect, preserve and invest in the health and care workforce, the World Health Assembly called on Member States “to take the necessary measures to safeguard and protect health and care workers at all levels”. The Global Patient Safety Action Plan 2021-2030, adopted by the 74e the World Health Assembly, includes action on health worker safety as a priority for patient safety.

WHO’s work on protecting the health, safety and well-being of health workers includes:

  • development of norms and standards for the prevention of occupational risks in the health sector;
  • advocacy and networking to strengthen the protection of the health, safety and well-being of health workers; and
  • support countries to develop and implement occupational health programs for health workers at national, subnational and health facility levels.

WHO and ILO have jointly published a guide to developing and implementing occupational health and safety programs for healthcare workers and work with international partners to build capacity for its implementation in countries.

WHO also provides guidelines and recommendations on the prevention and management of occupational hazards in the health sector.


  1. Costs to Britain of workplace fatalities and self-reported injuries and ill health, 2017/18. [Internet]. Director of Health and Safety; 2019. Available at:
  2. Bienassis De K, Slawomirski L, Klazinga N. The economics of patient safety Part IV: Safety in the workplace: Occupational safety as the bedrock of elastic health systems, OECD Health Working Papers, No. 130. [Internet]. Paris: OECD Publishing; 2021. Available at:
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