Asda’s senior HSE manager tells IOSH magazine how the retail giant worked to keep colleagues and customers safe as the pandemic unfolded – and warns against the dangers of complacency when it comes to control measures.
Supermarkets were pioneers in the early stages of the Covid pandemic. While non-essential shops were forced to close in March 2020 and could use lockdown to plan their safe reopening, supermarkets – essential retailers whose staff were designated key workers – stayed open, putting them on the frontline of the retail sector’s pandemic response.
The measures they introduced to keep employees and customers safe are like old friends now: queueing, one-way systems, social distancing, Perspex screens and, of course, masks. But in the spring of 2020 these measures felt alien and were often unwelcome.
Paul Miller MBE CMIOSH, senior HSE manager at retail giant Asda, acknowledges the challenges: 'We were part of a group of pathfinders, along with other retailers, supporting one another in digesting, translating and implementing ‘Covid secure’ measures in a practical way.
'It was a concerning and uncertain time for colleagues,' he recalls. 'They continued to feed the nation at a time when many people didn’t have to venture out. All in all, we managed to strike a balance between serving the customer and protecting our colleagues.'
As the pandemic began to unfold early in 2020, the immediate challenge for Asda – like all businesses with employees in public-facing roles – was how to continue to serve customers, in an appropriate manner, at a time when social interaction was discouraged, colleagues and the general public were concerned, and social distancing and lockdown were introduced.
In the first few months of the pandemic, Asda introduced social distancing, the wearing of face coverings, one-way systems, Perspex screens and training in Covid safety measures.
While some of the safeguards were visible to customers – hand sanitisers and screens quickly became a familiar part of the retail environment – other measures were taken behind the scenes.
'We carried out a comprehensive review of our ventilation systems,' Paul explains, 'and we were an early adopter of ensuring our air quality standards are high.
'We also redesigned a number of standard business practices: some elements of training moved online, while others were undertaken in a socially distant way; and we used Zoom and Teams to continue to meet and engage with colleagues. All of this work was undertaken ‘off camera’ to ensure the customers continued to have a positive shopping experience.
'We took various steps to make sure colleagues understood and were following the measures, including physical monitoring by our supervisors and managers and electronic monitoring utilising our hand-held devices. This helped provide assurance that our approach was being implemented appropriately at the sharp end, and data and insight to help us understand how our control measures were working.'
Communication is always important, but in the uncertainty of the pandemic – especially the early stages – it was crucial to get key messages across and to reinforce through repetition and reminder.
'We’ve taken a multi-channel approach,' Paul explains, 'which includes colleague briefings and training, posters and other visual aids, announcements via Asda radio, and coaching. It has been challenging at times due to the volume and speed of change, but our communications teams have done a superb job of translating the changes into effective, real-world comms.'
Change has been a constant during the pandemic, as lockdowns and restrictions have come and gone, and the virus itself has evolved.
Reflecting the national picture, Asda has moved from relying on a significant reduction in social interaction to control the spread of the virus to being more focused on ventilation and hygiene, with pharmaceutical interventions – primarily the vaccine roll-out – reducing the likelihood of severe disease. Employee feedback on control measures has been important.
'We have regular Covid-19 consultation meetings, along with other consultative forums, where we listen and, when appropriate, introduce or reintroduce control measures. This has included changing hygiene products to ones that improved all round effectiveness.'
Paul is proud of various aspects of Asda’s response to Covid, in particular its approach to ventilation, individual assessments, occupational health support for vulnerable colleagues, and the application of anti-microbial coatings on high-contact areas.
'We’ve also learned lessons over the past two years. Don’t stand still: keep reviewing your approach to controls. Don’t underestimate the diversities that exist within the workplace – take them into account at every stage and maintain focus on areas of priority.'
A collaborative approach within the industry has been a welcome positive amidst the unprecedented challenges.
'There has been a sense of a shared concern and a high degree of cooperation between the various retailers,' Paul confirms. 'There are a number of forums for retailers to share practices, experiences and learning.'
As the world anticipates the possible impact of the Omicron variant, it seems the only certainty in the short term is uncertainty. As time goes on, people inevitably become weary.
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Paul believes Asda has learnt lots from the past 18 months and is well prepared and agile for the future.