The travel and tourism industry has been hit harder than most by the pandemic, writes Steve Smethurst. How is IOSH supporting the sector as it plans for an uncertain future?
In January this year, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and IOSH produced a document designed to help the sector navigate its way through the many challenges brought on by coronavirus (see Ingraining health and hygiene protocols below).
The sector has been forced to make a major shift in approach that Tiffany Misrahi, vice-president of policy and research at the WTTC, likens to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. ‘After 9/11, increased physical security became the new normal,’ she says. ‘Twenty years on, health security and hygiene have set a new baseline. It’s going to be extremely important that we don’t have a short-term memory, because this is in no way a fad.’
One of the biggest challenges facing the sector is around taking a risk-based approach, which Tiffany accepts countries have struggled with historically. ‘How do you continue to adapt your policies as the science and the context evolve?’ she asks.
Another element is around ensuring consistency and alignment in terms of protocols. She says: ‘It’s partly why we created the WTTC SafeTravels protocols [see Resources, below]. We need to boost traveller confidence, but also ensure companies and governments are working towards the same goals. It’s going to be essential that protocols trickle down and are properly implemented.
‘It’s great to have big ideas from the top, but they have to make sense on the ground. They need to be implementable.’
The COVID challenge
Daniel Boshier CMIOSH is operational risk manager for InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) and looks after OSH, food safety and security for hotels and resorts across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and West Asia.
His view is that the travel and tourism industry has always been susceptible to hygiene factors, whether it’s COVID, norovirus, ebola, Zika or even cholera. ‘Having an understanding of these things is essential to health and safety in the travel and tourism sector,’ he says. ‘We have holiday destinations around the world where the hygiene element and control measures have always needed to be stringent.’
Take the practices for cleaning and the use of chemicals, for example. ‘This is one of the good things about our industry, especially for the big players, in that we were able to deal with COVID and put guidance and policies in place quickly. The industry had dealt with similar challenges before, for example, with norovirus. In many ways it’s not too dissimilar – the practices of increased cleaning and hygiene practices everywhere, having people isolated in their rooms if there’s a new virus outbreak and dealing with local health authorities. Having robust guidance and procedures for these outbreaks helped the global safety team to review our procedures and migrate them across to COVID where applicable.’
For Daniel, one of the biggest challenges of COVID is that almost every country is moving independently towards its own regulatory requirements. IHG follows local guidance but also has its own global standards that use the World Health Organization as a baseline. ‘It’s something that we are keeping on top of, so that as a group we understand all these different changing facets across the region.’
Not all businesses have IHG’s resources, of course. As Tiffany notes, SMEs make up some 80% of the sector, so any protocols need to work for small travel companies as well as larger ones. ‘One of our key concerns is to ingrain health and hygiene protocols in our sector’s DNA,’ she says. ‘IOSH has leadership in this area and that is why we decided to explore together whether this was something we could partner on, the result of which was our joint piece of work.’
The WWTC has long been an advocate for sustainable growth, but what are the priority areas post-pandemic? ‘We need to turn this crisis into an opportunity for the sustainable and inclusive growth of the sector,’ Tiffany Misrahi says. ‘People have a newfound appreciation for nature and wildlife and discovering the great outdoors. ‘We’re hoping this will hold. We will in any case continue our efforts towards climate neutrality. Engaging on biodiversity and wildlife is truly important because, in many ways, COVID has been detrimental for wildlife conservation, which is often reliant on travel and tourism.
‘In June, we launched a big piece of work with the UN Environment Programme on single-use plastics products. This is relevant in the context of COVID, where for health reasons certain single-use plastic products have been recommended. We need to look at the intersection of environmental sustainability and health going forward.
‘Another issue for the future is destination stewardship – historically, there have been maybe 50 top destinations globally, but more people want to go to more off the beaten path to less-crowded destinations, so this will likely to up to 300 destinations. How do we make sure that it’s a win-win for the destination, businesses and the communities? Also, how do we ensure that all the health and hygiene elements are in place so they can welcome all those future travellers?’
The sector is also addressing the challenge of getting employees back to work with as much proactiveness and transparency as possible. Some 62 million jobs have been lost just in travel and tourism during COVID, according to the WTTC. ‘It has been devastating,’ says Tiffany. ‘The sector has learned a lot about transparency in the past 18 months. It’s key to make employees feel safe, which is part of the protocols we’ve put together, and also the multiple back-to-work guidelines we’ve co-published with IOSH.’
Issues covered range from risk assessments to the major shift in terms of working from home and the implications of furlough programmes. Tiffany also highlights the issue of mental wellbeing. ‘Increasingly, all sectors are seeing that mental wellbeing is tremendously important and it needs to be addressed head-on.
Tiffany also notes that inclusion and diversity have risen in prominence. ‘We’ve put together guidelines around inclusion and diversity, around accessibility and mental wellbeing. We’re also planning to put out a position paper on human trafficking. We hope to look more and more and in a more holistic way at the social impact of travel and tourism and how it benefits people and their livelihoods.’
WTTC and IOSH: Ingraining health and hygiene protocols
When the WTTC drew up its guidelines for the sector’s re-emergence from the pandemic, it asked IOSH to add its voice. The results can be seen in the guide From protocols to a safety culture: ingraining health and hygiene protocols in our DNA through meaningful managerial engagement.
Chris Jerman bolstered the physical controls outlined in the guide with an explanation of basic risk management to help ensure local managers feel empowered to implement then adapt controls as circumstances dictate (see also ‘Back in the building after COVID’ in IOSH magazine, May-June 2021).
Tiffany Misrahi at the WTTC says that the document has been well received by destinations and companies around the globe. ‘The WTTC is not an accreditation body, but we continue to have conversations with all our members about implementing the protocols and whether they’re having challenges. We’re also trying to provide a platform for dialogue to think through solutions to any challenges. It’s not just a conversation we need to have with leaders, it’s one that leaders of organisations need to have with their general managers and staff.’
She adds: ‘The reality is that it’s trial and error and it’s a learning process. But having tools and toolkits that are actionable is tremendously helpful.’
Chris would like to know how the guidance is landing. ‘The profession has an opportunity to assess how effective the guidance has been. But not with a survey with three boxes and smiley faces,’ he warns. ‘The profession can act as a conduit for asking people how it’s actually working.’
Keep it simple
Daniel says that in the future he’s expecting to see a huge growth in OSH professionals’ understanding of data and using it for ‘targeted, focused, productive meetings and conversations with stakeholders’. Looking ahead, he says, ‘it’s about being able to collect data correctly and understanding it and then presenting it in a way that helps support actions from our stakeholders.
‘The need has always been there, but it’s becoming more prevalent with new ways of working: advancement in machinery, work practices as well as the digital systems our teams use for completing checklists, task reports, risk assessments, and recording non-conformities and accident and incident reporting.
‘OSH professionals are advising more stakeholders than we would usually advise, across broader and more dynamic settings, which involves us having stronger stakeholder management, and building strong strategic outlooks alongside our wider business strategies.’
Tiffany says: ‘Ultimately, it’s about consistent and clear communication. Often, issues around health become very technical and we need to figure out how we keep them simple so that people can understand what they mean. In the longer term, this will need to become part of OSH professionals’ DNA.’
For Chris Jerman CFIOSH, content developer at IOSH, a key skill for the future will be to master the art of persuasive argument. ‘How to get people to see your viewpoint is largely missed from the education of the OSH professional and what we tend to rely on is regulation,’ he says. ‘How do you convince a business owner that opening is not a good idea without simply saying “The law says we can’t” and being seen as a pedant?’
Time for reflection
As we come out of the pandemic, says Chris, it’s time for OSH professionals to think about the skills they have used. ‘Where did they have to adapt? What did they learn from it? It’s also the right time to draw attention to the work that they and their team has done.’
However, he does have two warnings. First, that post-pandemic, professionals are being pushed on the idea of ‘horizon scanning’. There is the risk that the profession will face unrealistic expectations post-COVID and we need to be prepared to say “I’m not sure I can answer that – we can only react to things once they become known.”’
His second warning is that OSH can only advise. ‘Ultimately, COVID is a public health matter and it’s important that OSH professionals make their position clear – they are a helper or an adviser. They are not the business owner and don’t have the authority to make big decisions.
‘The problem with guidance is that it’s often taken far too rigidly. Rules rarely fit every situation so the skill of the OSH professional should be used to select a combination of measures that works for the business and those potentially affected. One size has never fitted all, and the pandemic is no different in that respect.’
Image credit | iStock
- 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
- WTTC, SafeTravels protocols: bit.ly/WTTC-safe-travels
- IOSH, COVID-19 – Ensuring the safety and health of workers in travel and tourism: bit.ly/IOSH-travel-and-tourism-safety
- WTTC on mental health guidelines: bit.ly/WTTC-managing-mental-health