The Labor Occupational Health Program Rises to the COVID Challenge

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and its workplaces, many Americans shifted to remote work while others found themselves in workplaces that needed extra measures to ensure worker safety. Both employers and workers had to work quickly to implement new sanitation and distancing measures to keep those whose jobs were deemed essential safe.

This challenge is tied directly to the work of the Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, which was established in 1974 and is dedicated to promoting safe, healthy, and just workplaces and building the capacity of workers to take action for improved working conditions.

LOHP’s team is now arming workers and organizations representing workers—like unions— with information about their rights to safety during the pandemic, offering resources and webinars focused on protecting service workers—like grocery store clerks, janitors, or those who are distributing meals to children while schools are closed—and farmworkers.

“The main health issue [for workers during the pandemic] is infection and getting infected,” says Suzanne Teran, LOHP’s associate director.

LOHP’s job has been made difficult by the fact that new facts about COVID-19 infections are being discovered every day. “In the first two months [after COVID-19 broke out in the U.S.], it was very rapid response and no one really knew the answers,” says Teran. “Now we’re learning that the virus is airborne and that has tremendous effects on workers.”

In the past, reports and research from the LOHP team of 12 have led to many real-world policy changes, including mandatory sexual harassment training in the janitorial industry and improved worker safety at Richmond, California’s Chevron refinery.

During the pandemic, the program’s in-person trainings have given way to Zoom webinars focused on a variety of COVID-related worker safety issues, from workers’ rights when testing positive for the virus to employers’ responsibility to protect employees via physical distancing mandates.

In addition, the team is working with the Asian Law Caucus at Berkeley Law to survey the Asian immigrant community to learn how they are experiencing COVID-19 and to advocate for policy changes in response to any major needs the survey uncovers .

“With COVID-19 there’s been an increased awareness that worker health is public health,” says Teran. “We need to recognize that worker health is our health. We are all workers.”