The Covid-19 pandemic is having strong impacts on workers exposed to the virus in their work environment. According to Eurostat (the European Statistical Office), most Member States recognize Covid-19 as an occupational disease. Nevertheless, the situation remains complex and contrasted across Europe.  That is one of the main lessons learned from the ETUI's first online seminar, ‘Covid-19 as occupational disease’, where experts from 12 countries provided some legal and practical examples.

Being infected by the Covid-19 virus in the workplace is, above all, a question of legal qualification. For example, Spain and Italy were the two countries most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, they share different views on approaching the phenomenon. If the Covid-19 meets the conditions to be considered an occupational disease in Spain, it is treated as an accident at work in Italy. In most European countries, occupational diseases are classified under lists that may conform to ILO (International Labour Organisation) or EU (European Union) lists. Covid-19 is generally equated to infectious diseases like in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, and Latvia. These lists mainly concern employees with few differences from country to country. For instance, according to French legislation, only workers from the private sector can claim recognition.

To be considered as an occupational disease, a clear connection between the disease and workplace exposure must be established. This link seems obvious concerning health and social service workers in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it has to be the subject of recognition procedures, sometimes very complex, to meet medical and administrative requirements. Solely in the Czech Republic, proof that the disease actually arose in direct connection with the performance of work is not necessary. That illustrates the fact that requirements and procedures may vary from one country to another. Moreover, it can take months before being recognized.

First and foremost political

The disease's clinical manifestation might be tricky to investigate as the asymptomatic cases and long-time effects of the Covid-19 are not always considered. Differences of practices also appear as sectorial assessments are less the general rule than the case-by-case investigation. In Portugal, the problem of recognition is, first and foremost political: only healthcare workers and security officers can claim for it. In France, as a wide range of sectors is excluded, justice procedures became the only path for workers claiming their rights. The Romanian situation also differs because of a restricted legislative framework which explains why only a few cases meet recognition conditions.

Once the occupational disease is established, workers benefit from compensation which will cover, entirely or partially, their loss of income. Here, too, there are no general rules. The Netherlands makes the distinction because there is no compensation system for an occupational disease, even if there are many categorical arrangements for specific sectors and diseases. Therefore, Covid-19 is not recognized as a compensable occupational disease.

According to UNICARE, which has conducted a research project about healthcare workers impacted by the Covid-19, European countries allow more inclusive and better social support. However, the diversity of policies highlights the need to establish common rules for recognizing Covid-19 as an occupational disease. The definition of the clinical symptoms of Covid-19 might also be broadened to include long-term effects and consequences, which are still not well known. Additionally, there is a need for data to evaluate with accuracy how many workers are impacted and what are the sectors concerned.

More information can be found in the report Covid-19 as occupational disease’, which pinpoints the adverse effects of Covid-19 on workers and the key issues to tackle. Another report published by UNICARE, ‘Building a shield against Covid-19’, provides guidelines to help to keep nursing home workers and residents safer during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

Photo: Markus Spiske from Pexels

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