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BWU Health Programme for 2018
Friday, 05 January 2018 15:43

The Barbados Workers’ Union closed the year 2017 by approaching the position where it has planned to place the health of the Barbadian workforce in the year 2018.

During the month of November, 2017, the BWU, in association with a number of departments in the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Health, conducted a one-week training programme at its headquarters, “Solidarity House”, for some thirty members of joint safety and health committees from workplaces drawn from the Public and Private Sectors. The aim of the seminar/workshop was to build the technical capacities of the participants with a view to enabling them to have a clearer understanding of those occupational safety and health issues which impact on the workforce and which would empower them better to apply the knowledge they learnt to deal with the issues.

We in the BWU recognise that, as a result of retirement and attrition, many of the workers whom we had trained over time are no longer in the workforce. In addition, we have found that the current crop of workers and employers’ representatives who sit on joint safety and health committees, are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the Safety and Health at Work Act, nor are they sufficiently apprised of the tremendous human and financial burden imposed on the workforce by public health issues such as non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – stroke, diabetes and cancers; mental health issues like stress, anxiety and depression or vector issues such as dengue fever, Zika and Chikungunya.

During the November seminar/workshop we were privileged to benefit from the assistance provided by the safety and health officers in the Safety and Health Section in the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Health, through the Community Nutrition Centre, the Polyclinics and the Psychiatric Hospital, as well as the Barbados Fire Service.

We therefore sought to examine how we, as a union, could empower the joint health and safety and committees, which are mandated by the Safety and Health at Work Act, by teaching them , firstly, to understand their role under that piece of legislation as well as to carry out their functions, effectively, for example on issues such as the rudiments of assessing risks in the work environment. We dealt also with fire safety, and examined, as well, how healthy diets, physical activity and quitting smoking can prevent and/or reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancers. We benefited from informative presentations from two psychiatrists from the Psychiatric Hospital on Mental Health: What it is and what it is not and how to cope. Those presentations were literal eye openers for the participants as some of them were hearing information on this subject for the first time.

The BWU’s focus on mental health stems from the fact that mental health problems constitute the largest single source of world economic burden, with an estimated global cost of 1.6 trillion pounds or US $2.5 trillion – greater than cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, or diabetes, individually, according to the the UK’s Mental Health Commission.

The workers who benefited from that training were counselled to return to their respective workplaces and assist in the training of their fellow members. Our plan is to conduct one such course for joint safety and health committees in each quarter of the coming year and we have written to the respective Ministries, in respect of their support to supply presenters for these programmes.

Those of you who have been following the Barbados Workers’ Union’s approach to occupational safety and health over the past twenty years, would have recognised, by now, that while we have retained a strong emphasis on industrial safety and health, the focus has been towards a holistic approach to workplace safety and health, hence the adoption of public health issues in our programmes that include infectious and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Illnesses and absences are costly to the workers, enterprises and the national economy.

So what are the factors that have influenced the upsurge in NCDs? A recently-published report by the NCD Alliance and the Novartis Foundation notes, among other factors, that the way we live our lives is changing. Worldwide the ways in which we learn, work, travel and play are becoming more sedentary. What we eat is shifting away from the traditional diets and towards meals, snacks and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar and low in nutrients. The report added that pollution, indoor and outdoor, as well as urbanisation were among the factors that led to poor health.

According to the Report, the most effective workplaces are those that foster a culture of health throughout the organisation, covering a range of conditions, including the major NCDs: cardiovascular diseases, cancers, respiratory diseases, diabetes and mental and neurological disorders. These diseases have shared risk factors – including tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol – and addressing any given risk factor the workplace will effectively reduce the burden from multiple diseases.

The report explained that reducing exposure to these risk factors is also beneficial for other conditions, including obesity, some infectious diseases, and musculoskeletal disorders. Conversely the fact that multiple diseases have roots in, or are exacerbated by, the same risk factors leads to many individuals living not only with one disease, but two or more – referred to as ‘co morbidities’ – which necessitates a fully comprehensive and tailored approach to workplace health. For example, obesity is a risk factor for cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and for musculoskeletal disorders – and can increase the likelihood of accident or injury at work. Creating an environment, within which everyone is supported to adopt healthy lifestyles, will empower employees to take control of their weight without stigma or discrimination, potentially reducing accidents and injuries as well as lowering individual’s risk of disease.

NCDs kill 40 million people each year – this figure equates to 70% of all deaths globally. Fifteen million of these deaths occur between the ages of 30 and 70 years – a period which should be the prime productive years of employment. Over 80% of these premature deaths occur in low and middle income countries (LMCIs).

NCDs, primarily cardiovascular diseases, cancers, respiratory diseases, diabetes and mental health and neurological disorders share common causes. And tackling four risk factors – tobacco use, physical inactivity, harmful use of alcohol and unhealthy diets – can lower the risk of these diseases. NCDs have a profound economic impact beyond the personal suffering they cause, nationally, NCDs place increased strain on health systems; while businesses are faced with economic losses due to absence from work, presence at work but not working at full capacity (presenteeism) and the loss of valued employees due to early retirement or death.

Workplaces offer an excellent setting for NCD prevention and management, in particular in LMICs where the provisions of care for chronic diseases are still limited. In this context, workplace health programmes can benefit broader society and communities beyond employees.

Now you may ask, why is it that the BWU expends so much energy and time on occupational safety and health and wellness? As we have stated earlier, apart from the fact that the human and money costs of illness and absences, as they relate to the individual worker, businesses and the state is overwhelming, we believe that being able to present well evidenced information is vital to inspire people to advocate for the changes that can make a difference - and this needs to take place at the levels of the home, the school, the workplace, the communities and nationally. And that is why we in the Barbados Workers’ Union have been working over the past year to develop a national wellness policy, which we plan to roll out during the 2018 Week of Excellence programme in late February.

A document, on the theme, “Tackling non-communicable diseases in workplace settings in low and middle-income countries – a call to action an practical guidance” takes a detail examination on NCDs and their impact on families, people living with NCDs, businesses, local communities and nationally.

  • Nationally, NCDs increase strain on health systems, and lower taxes from people not at work impact on services such as health and defence – and economic growth is dependent on a healthy workforce
  • Families of people living with NCDs endure serious or catastrophic out-of-pocket spending on health where there is no social protection
  • Intergenerationally, when young people are removed from school to care for family members with a NCD, this impacts on their education and potentially long-term health (educational attainment is a known social determinant of health);
  • People living with NCDs may find it harder to find work due to discrimination, and productivity may be lower (a study in Latin America found that people affected by NCDs work three to six per cent fewer hours per week than the average).
  • Businesses lose the time and skills of valued employees. In Brazil, China, India and the Philippines, absenteeism and presenteeism alone cost over two per cent of each country’s GDP. The cost of early retirement exceeds this ranging from 3.4 % to 5.1% in the same countries. In Brazil, these costs are set to rise to a total of 8 per % in 2030.
  • Local communities are impacted since people in work tend to spend their wages in their locality – unemployment therefore affects the neighbourhood economy.

Barbados is at an admirable position to effectively fight the NCD peril but it will take an all of Barbados effort to do so. Barbados has the expertise to do so, both a the level of the Ministry of Health and Civil Society bodies such as the Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC), led by Professor Sir Trevor Hassell and local organisations such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Diabetes Foundation, Barbados Diabetes Association. But it will take the “will” to forge inter-ministerial cooperation to get commercial Barbados and the schools on board in the war against NCDs. We have to find ways by which we can get the message to the schools, beginning at the kindergarten level as well as the parent-teacher associations. There is need also for greater cooperation between the various local health bodies and greater commitment towards unifying these bodies to bring about meaningful and fundamental change. That struggle must be continued at the level of the workplace where trade unions and employers must unify to initiate workable solutions to deal with issues such as nutrition, coordinated physical activity and psychological issues such as stress.


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