COVID-19 has shown that OSH is critical to creating safe working environments. As this year’s ‘SafeDay’ underlines, investment in OSH research, systems and training is important for responding to future crises.
First observed by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2003, the World Day for Safety and Health at Work (or ‘SafeDay’) has become an annual event celebrated on 28 April.
Held to promote the global prevention of occupational accidents and diseases, the awareness-raising campaign has a different focus each year. SafeDay 2021 builds on 2020’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic by emphasising the importance of investing in OSH now in order to capitalise on safe working environments in times of crisis.
To coincide with April’s virtual event, the ILO will publish a report, the findings of which it will use to inform preparations for future global incidents.
What seismic events such as COVID-19 and the Beirut explosion in August 2020 underline is the importance of adopting resilient OSH systems to mitigate the risks presented by dynamic events.
‘The OSH community has a very solid conceptual foundation in the risk assessment approach and the hierarchy of controls,’ notes William Cockburn, head of the prevention and research unit at EU-OSHA, who says the profession has responded well to the pandemic.
Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at IOSH, concurs. She emphasises the importance of a preventative approach to occupational injury and illness. She also highlights other key features of an effective OSH management system, which will support the preparedness and response to dynamic events and risk management.
These include visible leadership, with a strong commitment to health, safety and wellbeing; worker involvement with two-way feedback channels; and a systematic ‘plan, do, check, act’ approach.
‘It’s important that you have the right competencies for assigned roles and responsibilities,’ she says. ‘Effective communication strategies and the right controls, for which you monitor/review/take action, while ensuring that you’ve got good risk management practice in place.’
Root and branch rethink
Euan Ronald, national head of safety, health and environment for BAE Systems Australia (see On the radar, below), says that an additional strength of the OSH profession is that it’s used to operating across all phases of emergency management.
‘Leveraging our internal and external networks, we act as a conduit to facilitate information flow and support action. We are one of those few professions that touch all spans and layers of an organisation.’
A particularly significant contribution that the OSH community has made is the delivery of practical, industry-targeted guidance to help businesses adopt safe work practices.
EU-OSHA, for example, has issued two publications, one of which, COVID-19: Back to the workplace: adapting workplaces and protecting workers, outlines the measures needed to set up a safe working environment.
Lacye Groening, junior technical officer for OSH at the ILO, says that one of the major developments over the past year has been lockdowns and stay-at-home orders affecting a large section of the workforce. This resulted in a dramatic spike in telework – an issue covered in detail in the SafeDay report.
Not only has this upheaval created isolation issues and new psychosocial risks for workers, but it has also blurred the lines between the home and work environment.
Businesses have been forced to radically rethink and adapt their management styles with some countries and sectors proving more successful at this than others.
A silver lining
Dr Michelle Robertson is executive director for the Office Ergonomics Research Committee, an industry research consortium based in the US.
She says its members have taken innovative steps to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and working from home. They quickly concluded that a long-term approach to the pandemic was needed but that employees required immediate help, particularly from an ergonomics and mental health wellbeing point of view.
‘It’s the psychological stress of working at home and balancing that with connectedness with the organisation and other team members,’ she says.
‘Then there’s the physical strain of working in a poorly-designed work area, with no ergonomic chair, no dedicated workspace and lack of ergonomic training. What is the guidance that the organisation can give?’
To support this move to working from home, companies have provided virtual ergonomic assessments and guides and followed up with online training to help staff set up workstations correctly.
They have also started to create hybrid work hubs, so that workers can return to an office environment in the knowledge that it is safe. This has required them to respond to OSH requirements such as cleaning protocols, density issues and air circulation.
‘We have to be resilient because things can change quickly, so managers need to monitor the situation and follow the World Health Organization [WHO] or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to keep the platform of response the same,’ she says.
For last year’s SafeDay event, Michelle participated in an international expert panel on the ILO’s ‘Stop the pandemic’ webinar to explore OSH solutions for working from home.
‘As long as we can set up the work/life balance for the mental and physical needs and meet these working challenges with creative ergonomic solutions,’ she says. ‘The current situation provides us with exciting opportunities to innovate new ways of working. I call it the silver lining of COVID.’
Lode Godderis, from the University of Leuven’s Centre for Environment and Health, is another webinar panellist who has seen the benefits that OSH interventions have made.
He explains that it is mandatory for Belgian employers to pay into an occupational health service. Since the pandemic started, this funding has enabled OSH professionals to assist their public health colleagues with contact tracing, testing, assessing risks and enabling business continuity.
Lode says that OSH professionals have experience of administering flu jabs and vaccinations in employment sectors, so could play a significant role in the roll-out of Belgium’s COVID vaccination programme.
‘The major advance that OSH can provide is a structure and organisation by which you can actively approach and follow up for the booster,’ he says. ‘That is one of the advantages we have. Occupational health services can take that vaccine to the target population.’
He adds that the pandemic has led to a debate in Belgium around the responsibility that different services have in providing support and how best to align them.
The burgeoning mental health challenge has raised psychologists’ profile. However, not everyone who exhibits feelings of fear or depression necessarily requires a psychological follow-up, Lode says.
‘Sometimes it can be done at work level together with a supervisor and colleagues. At certain moments, some people need further help and then it’s important you can refer them immediately to a psychologist,’ he says.
‘What we’ve done is optimise the referral system in both directions. That’s one of the positive outcomes of the crisis.’
For Lottie Galvin, a mental health first-aider at iHASCO, an IOSH-approved online training provider of health, safety and wellbeing courses, senior management need to drive long-term investment in mental health support.
‘If you have the right attitude at the very top and make mental health concerns a normal part of everyday conversation, you’ll naturally encourage people to feel confident enough to express themselves,’ she says.
‘Asking people how they are really doing can make all the difference, and so can sharing how you are feeling. It opens a doorway to positive change.’
Lottie says senior management conduct thorough and regular COVID risk assessments for those who do want to return to the office and are swift in responding to the government’s advice.
The business has set up hand-sanitising stations at every entrance and exit, added signposts and posters to remind employees to wash their hands and to keep a two-metre distance, and installed screen dividers between desks.
iHASCO has regular group video calls to give remote staff a sense of belonging and a forum to talk about personal ups and downs.
‘Line managers also have one-to-ones with the individuals in their teams to discuss not only work-related subjects, but also the staff member’s mental health and how they’re handling the changes,’ she says.
iHASCO’s staff have completed a bundle of the company’s online training courses, including those on managing anxiety, resilience, returning to work and mental health awareness.
Incident management: On the radar
Fly-in fly-out work is critical to BAE Systems Australia’s operations. As part of its portfolio, the organisation supports three remote JORN (Jindalee Operational Radar Network) sites, which are over-the-horizon radar networks for monitoring Australia’s air and sea defences.
‘How do we make sure that we have every conceivable control in place to enable those remote sites to continually operate during an incident?’ says Euan Ronald, national head of safety, health and environment.
‘With the pandemic, you could say, “We’ll just keep the one team working on site without rotation”, but you can’t because of the psychosocial and wellbeing issues this would cause in addition to interstate travel complications during a national lockdown. How do you manage that?’
Euan took charge of the organisation’s Incident Management Group (IMG) shortly after joining in March 2020 and restructured it so that its response better catered to the organisation’s diverse risk profile.
‘You have to adopt command and control quickly,’ he says. ‘This enables fast and effective decision-making during the response phase. We now have a tailored IMG supporting local incident management teams and coordinating site-based actions with strategic direction from the Executive Leadership Team.’
Euan says an important lesson learned from the pandemic is that, in future, the role of IMG chair should be given to the person best placed to lead, depending on the incident.
‘Our approach has delivered continuity of operations and realised additional benefits such as significant reduction in travel with the associated cost and environmental savings, enabling us to adopt this as a future way of working.’
Collaboration and care
OSH is still learning about COVID-19 and how best to respond to the challenges it presents. Thus it’s critical that investment in research continues alongside training.
Another important element in any global crisis is collaboration between stakeholders. IOSH has collaborated with many partners from local up to international level, notably through its joint webinar series with WHO, and is an active supporter of SafeDay.
As employers continue to adapt their work environments and practices, William from EU-OSHA warns that it’s the businesses that are already well engaged with OSH that have been most effective in their response.
‘We are particularly concerned about the groups of workers who are especially vulnerable or disadvantaged, whether that is seasonal workers, those who are temporary, the self-employed or the false self-employed, and everyone who is working on platforms,’ he says.
‘Perhaps there are risks that specifically make those workers more vulnerable to COVID-19, but it’s also putting a spotlight on collectives that have had very poor working conditions for a long time.’