Public Transport Workers Need Protection From The Covid-19 Dangers

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We’ve spoken about many issues with regard to how Covid-19 has left a mark on public transport, with a huge focus on passengers. But have we spoken about the people behind the day-to-day operations of transporting passengers from A to B and beyond? Not yet, so here’s a long-overdue article centred on public transport workers and their health.

Bus driver in Kyoto
Has the safety of public transport workers like this bus driver ever been considered? (Wait a minute, where’s his mask?)
Image Source: Alexander Schimmeck

Why should public transport workers be protected by decision-makers?

Obviously, because public transport workers form the backbone of the public transport system. These quotes prove it.

“Employees are the most important assets in public transport. They must therefore be given special protection, both as individuals and in their function as drivers, supervisors, managers, etc. It is in the nature of things that employees in public transport have close contact with the customers, i.e. the passengers.”

Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI) on the need to protect employees.

“Public transport workers are on the frontline of the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. They are the drivers, ticket sellers, conductors, cleaners, maintenance and office workers who provide the vital services that keep public transport systems functioning – facilitating other key workers to travel to work and ensuring that the sick are cared for and shelves are stocked.”

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (why ITF and not ITWF?) on the importance of keeping public transport workers safe from Covid-19.

As highlighted in our article about Kenya’s transport system, the popular minibus system depends on the work of 2 people per minibus – the driver and the conductor. If they’re all not safe, then how would the minibus system function without them?

In fact, the following survey by the New York University (NYU) School of Global Health investigating the impact of Covid-19 on public transport workers in New York City (NYC) was the very thing that prompted me to look into this issue. Here’s the summarised survey data set gathered from more than 700 NYC public transport workers:

  1. There were significantly more personal protective equipment (PPE), safety supplies, and sanitary protocols available in July/August 2020 compared to the time before March 2020. But this didn’t stop all the workers from getting infected or worrying about it.
  2. 24% of the transport workers surveyed were infected.
  3. Roughly 50% of the transport workers said they knew about symptom monitoring, workers being sent home for showing symptoms, or workers being sent home because of possible exposure at work.
  4. 90% of transport workers in August 2020 worried about getting infected.
  5. Over 70% feared for their safety because of passengers who didn’t wear masks, got angry when asked to wear a mask, attacked the workers if asked to wear a mask and/or attacked if the workers didn’t ask other riders to wear a mask.
  6. Transport workers also suffered form mental health and trust issues, thus relying on family, friends and faith for strength and resilience.
Train conductor
Train conductors like this gentleman are usually in close contact with passengers while doing their jobs.
Image Source: Jonny Rothwell

A May 2020 The Lancet paper titled The plight of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic backed the statement “transport staff have been particularly hard hit” with the following incidents: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of NYC reported that almost 4,000 workers were infected and 120 of them died; 28 London bus drivers died; it was reported that a Congolese train ticket seller in the UK named Belly Mujinga died after being spat and coughed on by a passenger who claimed to be infected!

The May 2020 Work-related COVID-19 transmission in six Asian countries/areas: A follow-up study by Lan, Wei, Hsu, Christiani and Kales proved that this occupational hazard is also evident in the East. The research team followed the governmental reports of Covid-19 cases for 40 days after the first locally transmitted case (while ignoring all imported cases) in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

During this 40-day period, they defined a possible occupational case as a worker who came in close contact with a confirmed case at work or a worker who is likely to be infected at work. They then calculated the occupational case numbers and came up with a temporal distribution of all possible occupational cases.

The temporal distribution showed 103 possible occupational cases, making up 14.9% of 690 local transmissions. Of the 5 groups of possible occupational cases, transport workers came in second place at 18% (tying with services and sales workers) after healthcare workers. That said more than enough about the need to protect them, doesn’t it?

Possible occupational Covid-19 cases according to Lan FY et al.
The possible occupational Covid-19 cases in Asia according to Lan FY et al’s May 2020 study.

How can public transport workers be safe(r)?

Seeing the dire need to keep public transport workers safe from Covid-19 infections, particularly at work, TUMI (mentioned above) recommended how to protect staff and infrastructure:

  • Provide info, awareness and training for staff on the measures
  • Provide protection and disinfection gear
  • Conduct health check-ups
  • Close the front door, no ticket sales by the driver and instead use e-ticketing
  • Separate the staff and passengers using barriers like Plexiglas and temporary “DO NOT CROSS” plastic tape barriers
  • Provide and protect supporting infrastructure

Such measures are already being put into practice. For instance, as written on London City Hall’s website, the Transport for London (TfL) has given workers face masks, introduced an enhanced cleaning regime while providing the necessary tools for cleaning, separated bus drivers and passengers with a clear screen and a sign saying not to sit near the driver, and urged health academics for more research-backed recommendations.

It might look like enough is being done. However, there have also been calls for better protection of transport workers by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (why ETF and not ETWF?). ILO highlighted in its September 2020 sectoral brief that the gaps in labour law and social protection have resulted in transport workers not having the rights to the sick leave and hazard compensation given to other essential workers.

Similar to the above recommendations, the brief also mentioned that ITF (also mentioned above) published demands to protect public transport workers through recognition of public transport workers as essential, provision of proper PPE, setting of working conditions that lower the risk of infection, provision of access to health services, better communication and protection of trade union rights. For the worst-case scenario, ETF has listed EU directives to back up public transport workers whose employers refuse to protect.

Lady in PPE
Public transport workers, as essential frontliners, need to be given proper training, PPE, access to health services, protective working conditions, and rights to sick leave and hazard compensation.
Image Source: Viki Mohamad

More should be done to protect public transport workers

Public transport operators have been given recommendations (or demands) to recognise public transport workers as essential frontliners and give them proper training, PPE and safer working conditions to avoid transmissions as well as access to health services, sick leave rights and hazard compensation when in need.

However, this may not be enough as some of the issues highlighted include attacks by uncooperative passengers, which could easily be avoided. Maybe operators and lawmakers should work on protecting workers from violent passengers through enforcement.

But the passengers themselves should consider and understand that public transport workers are just doing their job to avoid transmissions when they tell passengers to wear a mask on board. As always, the measures of social distancing, masking and sanitising when out of home applies to everyone, including public transport workers and passengers.

Most importantly, passengers should recognise public transport workers as essential frontliners whose work allows passengers like them to go to their destinations in the first place.