Covid-19 and the office: A workplace safety revolution

The health and safety landscape has changed completely for businesses

May 2020

Words by Doug Crann

This is a pivotal moment for the culture of workplace health and safety.

If companies drop the ball on decontamination protocols or any other key element in their recovery plan, it could do irrevocable damage to business continuity, company culture and trust in their leadership.

For workers, the pandemic has made health and safety an increasingly personal issue.

It is not just about protection for themselves any more, it’s about protection for their families and social circles. That’s a huge transition, and it means we’re all far more likely to demand accountability and more relevant, substantiated investments in workplace safety. I can’t imagine coming into work on day one after this pandemic without knowing that my employer had put all the measures in place that they said they would.

Leaders within organizations will have to put their money where their mouth is if they want to attract and retain quality people.

Investments in enhanced non-pharmaceutical interventions, response protocols, health screening, contact tracing and proven decontamination protocols will be the new minimum expectations. We will also see an uptick in demand for defensible safety programs and training on new safe work practices as a result of greater awareness of workers’ rights and appropriate protective measures. Not to mention that businesses will need to be alert to the mental health toll of working within these new restrictions, and of changing family demands. Failure to advocate for employee safety and wellness will likely result in a higher number of employees becoming disengaged and looking for a new work environment with a more aligned set of values.

"I can’t imagine coming into work on day one after this pandemic without knowing that my employer had put all the measures in place that they said they would"

At the same time, there is a clear operational imperative for defined protocols and a real opportunity to define your company values.

We don’t know what the next six or 12 months hold, and we can’t lose sight of the fact that we may have to address a second wave or additional exposure to COVID-19. Businesses will have very important decisions to make, and they can’t be taken lightly or unilaterally. For example, if a worker without symptoms says, “I’ve got a family member who has recently travelled and probably has COVID, so I’m going to self-quarantine for 14 days”, how thoroughly do you decontaminate that employee’s workplace? Do you shut down again for a couple of days or weeks to decontaminate adequately? Listening to our employees’ concerns and requesting their input at every stage of this recovery phase is essential to successfully reopening businesses while reinforcing company values and a “people come first” approach to managing your risks.

One thing that safety professionals agree on for sure is that it’s not enough to simply follow government guidelines or to adopt procedures from competitors.

Companies need to adopt a more disciplined risk-management approach and develop, for example, a decontamination code of practice tailored to their own organization that addresses specific exposures and scenarios. The at-risk factors for each workplace, each community and indeed each employee are different. Is your office close to high-risk businesses that are now hotspots, such as retirement communities or hospitals? How many lifts does your building have? Can you control the flow in and out effectively while maintaining social distancing? Where does your community stand on rolling out widespread testing? What local restrictions are still in place, for your business, partners and suppliers? All of these factors contribute to the unique risk profile of every organization. Finding qualified internal and/or external support to adequately identity and address these critical risk factors will make or break recovery efforts for many employers.

Another vital question is whether there is sufficient decontamination support available locally.

Four months ago, I would have had no problem finding a contractor in Toronto to deliver office decontamination, probably within 24 hours. Is that feasible in this new normal? We’re not sure. The loosening of restrictions and opening up of businesses will require a tremendous amount of monitoring and ongoing analysis so we can adapt appropriately to supply chain demands. Companies will also need to implement a vetting process to validate the skills and qualifications of those carrying out facility decontaminations and other on-site service work – and make sure they have their own continuity plans and safe work practices in place. This is all part of the due diligence that employers will have to undertake before they can confidently say to staff: it’s safe to come back to work.

Taking these extra steps can make all the difference in terms of performance, continuity, culture and employee trust.

Businesses are going to have to learn more – and quickly – about risk management, and relying on internal expertise may not always be an option. We will have to collaborate, share ideas and adopt a closely monitored trial-and-error approach, and then be quick to adapt as we learn more about the constraints of our new working environments. How can we afford not to?

Doug Crann is a senior safety consultant with WSP in Canada

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