COVID-19 may seem to be on the retreat in the UK, but its effects will be with us for the foreseeable future. OSH professionals discuss their steep learning curves, and how everything has changed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a traumatic shock to every country in the globe, forcing governments to take drastic measures, businesses to radically rethink operations and individuals to come to terms with new health risks and restrictions in their personal lives.
But what about the professionals whose function is to think about risk all the time? The nature of the pandemic and state-level responses overtook OSH professionals as much as national and global authorities. For the OSH community, COVID-19 has been an exercise in real-time decision-making, aligning moving organisational targets with official guidance, and applying the hierarchies of control to fluid situations.
As the pandemic moves into a new phase, where the immediate health crisis has abated but a long-tail economic and social crisis continues, OSH teams will remain at the centre of organisational decision-making.
COVID-19 has also put the profession centre stage. In the past, safety may have been bracketed with other business priorities and locked in a tussle for resources; in the pandemic, it has been fundamental and business-critical. In Nigeria, Busola Alofe, chief executive of the country’s Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (CIPM), describes how ‘keeping people alive, well and safe became a conscious and deliberate business goal’.
Shock and awe
Coronavirus has shaken healthcare, welfare and business systems to the core, and the pandemic isn’t over: even if a second spike can be avoided, the impact of the first will be felt in business and organisational planning, health and education for years to come. But looking ahead, outlines of positive shifts can also be seen, including an enhanced role and profile for OSH, and greater value placed on planning and preparedness.
Across the globe, organisational responses have been built on established health and safety principles: assessing risk, devising mitigations and communicating measures to the intended audience. At law firm Eversheds Sutherland, Paul Verrico, partner in the health, safety and environmental crisis management team, says: ‘Coronavirus may be a new and emergent risk that an NVQ or an IOSH qualification won’t have covered, but the general concept – identify the hazard and risk, work out a score, and put the mitigations in place – is bread and butter to health and safety professionals.’
'People aren’t trying to keep secrets. They want to work together to keep people safe'
The UK’s Nuffield Health Group runs 31 hospitals plus 112 fitness clubs and more than 200 workplace healthcare services. Head of health and safety Phillip Clarke emphasises that the group’s response drew on established principles, and a principle of local autonomy. ‘In giving advice or making decisions, we bore in mind the core elements of health and safety such as principles of risk assessment, providing pragmatic advice and decisions, what is reasonably practicable in terms of timescales and resources available, and what is an example of best practice.’
Get the message
In the UK, the construction sector had a challenging pandemic: continuing operations amid mixed government messaging on ‘essential’ work, closing sites when it became impossible to reconcile ‘duty of care’ and safe travel to work with continued operations.
At Essex-based specialist contractor Knight Build, health and safety manager Dominick Gallagher CMIOSH has been navigating this territory. ‘We felt the original guidance left workers exposed. As part of our measures, we made it mandatory to wear respiratory protection at all times if within two metres of another person.’
Dominick acts as vice-chair of the Association of Specialist Underpinning Contractors, and says that at a recent meeting, ‘every firm had a different interpretation of the two-metre, 15-minute rule, but everyone agreed the guidance was unclear’.
Health and safety teams have also emphasised ‘messaging’, with its potential to foster inclusivity or drive divisions. ‘The skills in risk assessment, and applying the hierarchies of control are important, but so too are communication and support,’ says Melissa Goodeve at Arcus (see Green shoots of recovery, right).
As OSH professionals address the practicalities of working alongside coronavirus transmission risk, new and unforeseen issues are emerging. Paul at Eversheds highlights novel risks in the retail sector and service industries. ‘The rulebook on shop security is very different in the new world where the risks include someone coughing on you,’ he says. Meanwhile, as buildings reopen, large concerns that maintained an on-site presence will have kept up legionnella protocols, but safety gaps may open up at smaller enterprises, while employers reoccupying offices at far lower densities will have to revisit fire risk assessments, lone working policies and first aid provision, he says.
Melissa Goodeve CMIOSH, interim health and safety director at Arcus, a facilities management provider to clients including Sainsburys, Capita and the logistics sector, is mapping out the lie of the land. ‘We have had to delay a few of the HSQE objectives we have planned for 2020/21. Our focus since March has been developing and issuing risk assessments, toolbox talks and communications,’ she says. ‘As lockdown eases, I think it’s about to get even busier!’
At Arcus, Melissa says: ‘We are encouraging the use of technology to avoid face-to-face meetings and unnecessary travel. Some divisions, such as our helpdesk, are continuing to work really well from home. However, we recognise the social, mental health and wellbeing elements for some colleagues who may find working from home difficult. This will be a factor we consider as we look into the re-occupation of our offices.’
At Arcus, the nationwide shortage of FFP3 face-masks has presented a potential impact on some tasks and activities being undertaken. ‘We are considering the use of engineering controls, such as dust suppression and LEVs, for some tasks in order to reduce the pressure on FFP3 masks supplies and ensure operational services can continue safely.’
Health and safety teams have also emphasised ‘messaging’, with its potential to foster inclusivity or drive divisions. ‘The skills in risk assessment, and the hierarchies of control have been vital, but so too has communication and compassion,’ says Melissa.
‘We want our colleagues to continue to feel empowered to stop work if they feel it is unsafe to do so and ensure they report to their line manager. This remains our key message as always, not only during
OSH without borders
To facilitate mitigating the risk of work at distances under two metres, many construction and manufacturing sites are considering mandatory temperature checks and enquiring about the legal position. Paul emphasises that employers should not be collecting personal temperature or health data, but infrared screening prior to being admitted through a turnstile would be acceptable. Installing thermal imaging CCTV as a control is also permissible in law, although a prior communications campaign and appropriate signage should advise staff or visitors of what is happening.
Melissa and Dominick anticipate an extended period of social distancing. ‘I think it will be with us for a long time to come, but ensuring social distancing will be one of our biggest challenges, and that colleagues feel empowered to stop work if they feel unsafe [at a client’s site]. We could see complacency as people return to work, and feel a bit more relaxed.’
Dominick adds: ‘Going forward, it’s not an unforeseen factor, and we can price in larger welfare facilities, and bigger site accommodation. We’ll be planning around the pandemic for the next 12 to 18 months.’
'Mental health and wellness, not just physical safety, will be a key learning and focus area'
The global nature of the pandemic, and the shared challenge of ‘flattening’ the epidemiological curve, has meant that professionals in different parts of the globe have had broadly similar experiences. At the same time, fast wifi connections have given us the ability to Zoom anywhere, to connect via WhatsApp, or to dial into live-streamed webinars anywhere in the world.
Hugh Maxwell CFIOSH, a principal health safety and environment consultant at Chubb Global Risk Advisors, has found a growing willingness to share information across borders, informally and formally, and to examine solutions adopted elsewhere. ‘We’re a close-knit community in health and safety, and there’s no oneupmanship – we all want people to be as safe as possible, and for businesses to operate with minimal disruption.’
Paul Verrico has observed the same phenomenon. ‘We’re seeing a real collegiality among health and safety professionals to work directly together. People aren’t trying to keep secrets. They want to work together to keep people safe.’
Another emerging positive from the pandemic is that the general public has had an extensive lesson in virus transmission and hygiene controls. At the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), which advises EU member nations, Anastasia Pharris, infectious diseases expert, says: ‘[We should see] a heightened understanding of the need to use good hand hygiene and to practice respiratory cough etiquette and to socially distance oneself from others when sick. If this understanding remains part of people’s practice, it could help reduce the spread of other infections going forward.’
The pandemic has accelerated existing trends, such as working remotely at home and video conferencing. At Nuffield Health, Phillip Clarke’s health and safety team is ‘looking at working flexibly and efficiently now and in the future’ and exploring the potential to carry out audits for its ISO standards remotely.
But he also address the mental health aspects of working from home, particularly when it’s not a choice willingly embraced by everyone. ‘It’s more important than ever to look after our people and our health and wellbeing of our people. Our Healthy Work Hub provides easy access to high-quality professional training and emotional, physical, financial and social support information. For example, online physiotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy, and access to our GP telephone service.’
At the CIPM in Nigeria, Busola Alofe strikes a similar note: ‘Mental health and wellness, not just physical safety and health, will be a key learning, development and focus area in terms of how we treat and handle people issues going forward.’
In the future, Hugh Maxwell at Chubb predicts that the balance of responsibilities for OSH professionals will tilt. ‘While it’s okay to have technical knowledge and skills, the current situation tests softer skills and communication. Anticipating and addressing the emotional impact this pandemic has had on staff is key, as is rebuilding trust and instilling fresh confidence that it’s okay to return to workplaces.’ He also anticipates a new focus on employee welfare in a variety of environments: ‘We take “wellness” for granted, but this brings it back to the fundamentals of self-preservation never previously demanded.’
As organisations adapt to the pandemic, Paul Verrico has observed clients’ health and safety teams taking on a primary role in their organisations. ‘Many large organisations have “gold and silver command leads” responding to the pandemic and include a health and safety senior manager at the silver level, so that person is directly linked to the board and has a direct impact on operations.’
In Hong Kong, where corporate preparedness helped MTR eliminate occupational transmission (see Lessons from Hong Kong, below), Vincent Ho says: ‘Every time we get hit by something, there is always room for improvement. We will collect good practice globally, and add it to our action table for our Infectious Diseases Business Continuity Plan.’
Coming from a safety and health practitioner who has already been through a pandemic learning curve, it sounds like good advice.
Head of corporate safety at the MTR Corporation and IOSH immediate past president Professor Dr Vincent Ho CFIOSH says the organisation reacted swiftly through its health and hygiene committee, which he chaired.
Hong Kong’s railway system, run by the MTR Corporation, has seen a drop in as much as 40% ridership during the pandemic, with just one staff case of COVID-19 among 18,000 employees. Its success was attributed to encouraging face mask wearing, surveillance of contacts and quarantining identified cases in Hong Kong.
‘SARS hit us in 2003 as COVID-19 has hit you, but a lot faster and without a clue. We were prepared [for COVID] because we would not want to go through SARS again.’ But just as Hong Kong learned the lessons of experience, he predicts that others will too. ‘Hopefully more countries and companies will put public health and hygiene into their safety management plans.’
‘Everyone in Hong Kong has a few boxes of face masks at home’, he jokes. ‘Everyone is doing it, so you can’t forget to wear one.’ Masks have undoubtedly suppressed transmission, although the absence of masks can lead to stress and anxiety, Vincent says.
But MTR has a novel
solution to this problem. Operating with corporate responsibility for up to over 48,000 people working in the railway and properties it owns and manages, the organisation is planning to set up its own small face-mask production line that will be put into service if a future wave of viral respiratory infections challenges supply chains.