Vaccines are being rolled out and workplaces starting to reopen. How should OSH professionals keep employees safe, and use their influence to manage the difficulties to come?
The pandemic stretched OSH professionals to the limits of their stamina in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the forced reconfiguration of most organisations brought them centre stage. OSH professionals were key to managing the risk of COVID transmission in workplaces that stayed open and in supporting the overnight shift to mass home-working.
They will remain pivotal in the next 12 months as lower virus case rates and mass vaccination programmes offer the prospect of workplaces reopening in many countries. But that large-scale unshuttering of premises, which may have lain dark for months, brings its own set of challenges. How will safety and health practitioners respond to them?
Vaccination will not reach 100% of any population or be 100% effective, especially as new variants of the virus appear. Employers will still need to take precautions to ensure its spread is limited at their sites with hand-sanitising protocols, floor markings, signage, increased cleaning and other measures (see Resources, below).
As some workplaces were reopened for short periods between lockdowns, the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has already issued instructions on checking systems that have been dormant for weeks or even months (see Back to the shop floor, below). On pressure systems, stretching down to steam boilers in cafes and some dry cleaning equipment, the HSE gives instructions on recommissioning after a mothballed period. Similarly, checks should be carried out showing that biocides are still active to prevent legionella risk in air conditioning systems and hot and cold water supplies.
Keeping your head: Complete control
How do I deal with people who deliberately avoid controls like those devised for COVID?
It is a skill that requires practice but there are some simple rules to follow. In effect, interactions between individuals tend to happen on three levels. These are:
Being categorised as a child does not require the person to actually be a child; it is just how people relate to each other. The most meaningful, helpful and effective combination is an adult-to-adult exchange.
However, when you challenge someone, something people tend to not enjoy, it is not unusual for them to react taking the ‘child’ standpoint. They might raise their voice and resort to insults. In response you might move to the ‘parent’ mode and start making demands. This will quickly result in a complete loss of control. As a child this is when you were probably told to go to your room. Being the ‘adult’ means remaining calm, respectful, professional, and factual. You should also try repeating the same message, calmly, until the other individual begins to run out of steam.
What you should see is that the ‘tantrum’ turns to submission and subsequent apology. The important thing is to remain in the middle bubble, the ‘adult’ and stay in control. It can be difficult; but it really does work. It’s very hard to argue with someone reasonable who doesn’t argue back.
Excerpt from WTTC and IOSH’s From protocols to a safety culture, December 2020.
Gently does it
But these are only a few of the risks associated with restarting work after an extended shutdown. How should OSH professionals approach reopening? Alastair Davey is global vice-president, health, safety and environment, at food services and facilities management multinational Sodexo. He says the company provides services at 30,000 client sites globally and thousands of these will have been partly or fully closed during the pandemic.
OSH specialists don’t need new skills, Alastair says, but they will be applying their existing ones of weighing risk and controlling it to a special set of circumstances.
Consider that putting in the COVID controls could unintentionally create new safety risks
‘Reopening a site is very similar to opening a new site,’ he suggests. ‘The risk evaluation starts early on, doing risk assessments, assessing the scope of services, what PPE you need and so on. In a way, you are almost doing that from a COVID perspective. You have to go through the whole operation.
‘You have to look at each activity and say, what’s the COVID risk? Then apply the hierarchy of controls. It might be as simple as putting up Perspex screens, introducing a one-way system or limiting the number of people. You’ve got to reassess the whole operation, and also consider that putting in the COVID controls themselves could unintentionally create new safety risks.’
It is clear that physical infrastructure that has not been functioning for weeks or months at a time presents an altered risk profile, but what about people who use it?
Chris Jerman CFIOSH, content developer at IOSH, who has previously held senior safety posts at the John Lewis Partnership and Ladbrokes Coral, points out that, in some cases, training certificates for skilled work, such as driving a forklift truck, operating a chainsaw or even administering first aid, will have run out. The training organisations will probably be fully booked by those organisations who leave it late, he suggests, and those employees whose certificates are still in date will be pressed to work longer hours or more shifts, while their colleagues wait to be recertified, all of which affects the risk profile.
‘As safety practitioners we can’t allow those shortcuts,’ he says. Better to predict the pinch points and head them off in advance of opening.
For high-risk activities, such as those requiring safe systems of work, even where specialist certification is still in date or not required, some informal retraining is advisable as employees restart after a period off the job, and perhaps extra supervision. ‘With high-voltage electricity for instance, you might double up and make it a two-person job at first,’ Chris suggests. ‘If you haven’t done it for a while you might forget some of those steps.’
‘People who have been on furlough might not remember the old routines,’ agrees Alastair. ‘They need to be reinducted; you have to build back that operational dynamic and culture.’
For office-based staff who have spent most of the past 12 months working from home, or not working at all while on furlough, the risks in the return to work come not from any lack of technical certification but from the potential stress associated with a return after a long absence. This is familiar to HR practitioners, who find that returners after even short periods of absence can worry that their skills have atrophied.
HSE on Manufacturing: Back to the shop floor
Any extended period of inactivity is likely to degrade the condition of machines, leading to increase in corrosion such as rust and possible seizure.
Process liquids may have separated out, causing an uneven consistency, or they may have solidified completely.
Automated machine parts or processes may have moved out of calibration from previously recorded positions.
Consider a detailed hands-on assessment of machinery before returning to production, including the following:
- Visual check of the structural framework of the equipment as their condition may not be clearly visible.
- Closely examine fixed and moving parts. Check for any signs of rust, delayering or deformation. If any parts are in distress, you may need to do a further strip-down.
Sarah Slade TechIOSH is UK office operations and health and safety manager at consulting engineers Buro Happold. She says the majority of the company’s more than 1000 UK staff had been working from home, but a few who could only work from the office had been furloughed. Buro Happold’s six offices have opened briefly between movement restrictions over the past year, but Sarah says she hopes that the current reopening will be permanent.
The foundation of reintegrating those coming back after a period away was laid in the efforts in the past year to keep in touch with them and include them in training courses, she says. Most importantly, they are not thrust back into full-time office attendance: ‘We didn’t just bring them back straight off – they were phased back in, working with HR and their line managers, doing one day in the office the first week, then two the next, until they were up to their normal pattern.’
People need to be re-inducted – you have to build back that operational dynamic and culture
On returning to the office, everyone has to go through a re-induction session covering COVID measures such as desk booking, a contact tracing app, one-way circulation, hand hygiene and distancing. Most importantly, Sarah and her team helped those managers who would be supporting staff day to day. ‘There were training courses for managers about supporting furloughed workers. It was around training courses, one-to-ones and team meetings – just to ensure they slotted back in and if they had any concerns to raise them.’
Before the pandemic struck, Sarah’s team carried out a survey to assess staff mental health and wellbeing which revealed a demand for more home-working to improve work/life balance, especially among employees working in the two London offices whose commute could add hours to the working day. The forced working patterns of the past 12 months have given the company’s leaders proof of concept for flexible working and it is likely to remain an option for staff whose jobs aren’t dependent on location.
Buro Happold’s work to support line managers in looking after staff and maintaining wellbeing is mirrored by recent guidance produced by IOSH for the travel and leisure industry. Whatever protocols specialists prescribe for reopening businesses as restrictions ease, it will be up to frontline managers to make sure they work in practice.
The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) had already drawn up guidelines on hygiene and distancing measures for businesses in its sector such as airlines, visitor attractions, hotels and restaurant chains. When it asked IOSH to review these materials, the WTTC identified the need for these to be supplemented by supporting advice and background information for managers. The result was the guide From protocols to a safety culture: ingraining health and hygiene protocols in our DNA through meaningful managerial engagement (see Resources, below).
Chris Jerman drew up the guide. He says that as travel restrictions are removed the industry is going to have to deal with an influx of exuberant customers. ‘They are going to be more ready for a holiday than anyone has ever been in the history of tourism,’ says Chris. ‘You are going to need to manage them sensitively and deal with the excitement safely.’
The IOSH guidance bolsters the physical controls with an explanation of basic risk management to help ensure local managers feel empowered to implement then adapt controls as circumstances dictate. It explains the purpose of risk assessment and why not all risk control measures have the same weight.
Chris recognised that the pressure of numbers and the excitability of holidaymakers in the initial months would inevitably lead to staff having to cope with people reluctant to comply with COVID controls. He says he started with the fundamental question ‘What are the ways to avoid confrontation?’ To answer it he drew on psychological concepts and techniques such as transactional analysis, emotional intelligence and nudge theory to help managers juggle the imperatives of good customer service and distancing requirements at times of peak demand. The guidance runs scenarios on coping with people who refuse to obey containment rules and dealing with conflict.
All of these measures, giving managers a degree of autonomy to manage risk and equipping them to deal with difficult situations, are not just important in maintaining order and compliance with COVID measures. Chris says they should also preserve an enjoyable experience for the travellers or guests, and reduce stress on staff.
Educating and empowering line management in understanding and controlling risk and gaining colleagues’ support to do so, rather than just setting rigid operational controls, gives the guidance an application beyond public-facing sectors such as tourism and retail. ‘We should be training line managers in a better understanding of the people who are under their care,’ says Chris. ‘That affects mental health, productivity and efficiency, as well as safety.’
WHO advice: A safe return to work
Make sure your workplaces are clean and hygienic
- Wipe surfaces and objects with disinfectant regularly
Promote regular and thorough hand-washing
- Put sanitising hand rub dispensers in prominent places around the workplace. Make sure there is access to places to wash hands with soap and water
Promote good respiratory hygiene in the workplace
- Display posters and use other communication measures to promote respiratory hygiene
- Ensure that face masks and/or paper tissues are available, along with closed bins for hygienic disposal
Advise employees and contractors to consult national travel advice before going on business trips
Brief your employees, contractors and customers that if COVID-19 starts spreading in your community anyone with even a mild cough or low-grade fever (37.3°C or more) needs to stay at home
- Make clear to employees that they will be able to count this time off as sick leave
Living with the aftermath
For the immediate future, being prepared for reopening, says Chris, is one thing, but OSH professionals should be aware that even if people are retrained and eased back into their work, there may be leftovers from the pandemic period beyond residual hygiene requirements.
‘There is a question of mental health too,’ he says. ‘What is going to be the effect on the restarting of society on people coming out into the sunlight for the first time in a year. What is going to be the effect on safety, on productivity, on absence, on presenteeism? What is going to be the legacy of lockdown in a returning workforce?’ He says any OSH professionals who are asking these questions now are less likely to be blindsided by the medium-term effects of the pandemic.
Alastair says other questions will need to be considered once the immediate task of rebooting work sites is over. ‘Are we going to plan to operate our businesses in future in a way that’s safe against COVID or any other airborne pathogenic virus? Or are we just going to go back to what we were doing before?’ He thinks we will be living with the virus and its after-effects for years, and he says he can see COVID controls continuing as part of the ‘new normal’.
Image credit | iStock | Getty
- WHO, Getting your workplace ready for COVID-19: bit.ly/WHO-workplace-ready
- GB HSE, Making your workplace COVID-secure during the coronavirus pandemic: bit.ly/HSE-workplace-secure
- GB HSE focuses on restarting manufacturing at bit.ly/HSE-manufacturing-safely
- WTTC and IOSH, From protocols to a safety culture: ingraining health and hygiene protocols in our DNA through meaningful managerial engagement: bit.ly/WTTC-protocols-ingraining