Originally Published on December 1, 2020 in Occupational Health & Safety
By Mohannad Kusti
The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for countless aspects of society. Many corners of our world and our economy were unprepared and left scrambling to respond. As our collective response to the pandemic has evolved, the workplace has become a key testing ground for creating safe and effective protocols to protect workers on the job and society at large.
Employers have stepped up in a big way, committing to learning and dedicating significant resources to protecting efforts in the wake of COVID-19. Almost overnight, HR professionals, facility managers, C-suite executives and other company leaders found themselves working to become experts in infectious disease control management. It was not a fair or ideal situation, but for many companies—in particular companies deemed essential—it was a necessary first step toward building a robust and effective COVID-19 response.
Organizations with stronger foundations in workplace health and safety were better prepared in some respects. That groundwork in keeping workers safe on the job has been invaluable as companies have worked to build a new normal that incorporates COVID-19 precautions into a sustained workplace health and safety program, and the stakes remain tremendously high. As companies scale up operations, COVID-19 still poses a significant threat to employee health and employer bottom lines. COVID-19 is poised to drive $81 billion in increased workers’ compensation claims for U.S. employers.
A New Hazard with Familiar Safety Protocols
The reality is, much of society’s collective COVID-19 response—on the job and off—is built on fundamental principles that will be immediately familiar to safety professionals. They will recognize the significant impact these controls can have, as well as many of the challenges that come with promoting and enforcing them. Essentially, COVID-19 precautions come down to four common health and safety protocols workplaces have been emphasizing for years:
Stay home if you are sick. It is a familiar refrain every flu season and standard policy at many organizations. Preventing sick individuals from spreading illness to others is critical, and comes with some workplace culture challenges. It means making temporary sacrifices to productivity and ensuring employees care more about slowing the spread of disease than looking tough or pushing through it.
Wear the appropriate PPE. Safety professionals probably are not surprised that some folks do not want to wear masks. From hard hats to goggles to respirators, occupational safety and health leaders are used to combining engagement and enforcement to get employees to wear the required PPE that will keep them safe.
Practice physical distancing. Keeping employees at a safe distance is also not a new concept. Forklift lanes and Designated Areas for fall protection gear are common safety precautions. For many safety professionals, engineering controls that keep employees out of harms ways are second nature.
Observe good hygiene practice. COVID-19 has amplified the importance of handwashing, but good hygiene is standard practice, from touchless bathroom fixtures to sanitizing workstations.
A New Health and Safety Mandate
Within this broad health and safety framework, health and safety leaders are responsible for tailoring the guidelines based on their industry, organization and employee population. For large companies, that may mean navigating the challenges of complying with varying local guidelines and regulations. For smaller businesses, it may mean prioritizing investments that will have the greatest impact and creating a long-term plan to implement additional protections. At all organizations, it means an unwavering focus on keeping workers safe and minimizing productivity disruptions.
Finding that right mix of employee-centric efforts driven by strategic business decisions is key. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. In response to this pandemic, many employers devoted considerable resources to employee health and safety with actions like comprehensive symptom screenings or accepting significant productivity disruptions. These sacrifices were necessary at the outset of the pandemic, but in most cases are not sustainable.
Effective protections can be developed and implemented in a more strategic way. In a post-COVID world, organizations must develop policies rooted in evidenced-based solutions that foster a safer workplace and drive cost savings. They must integrate these COVID-19 protocols into broader, ongoing health and safety initiatives. As employers seek out these solutions, there are a few key areas to focus their efforts to enhance workplace health and safety and minimize the devastating effects of the pandemic going forward.
Focus on the Flu Shot
Every year, tens of thousands of Americans die from influenza, according to the Centers for Disease Control.The flu shot is a critical tool in preventing the spread of this annual threat. This year, it’s more important than ever. Research has shown that the influenza vaccine can reduce the chances of severe illness with COVID-19. It’s a critical proactive workplace health and safety tool.
Yet a certain percentage of the population remains reluctant to get it due to lingering misconceptions about how vaccines work. This year, others may not want to visit their doctor’s office or clinics and risk potential COVID-19 exposure. Employers can play a key role in making it as easy as possible for workers to get the flu shot by offering the vaccination on-site.
Make the Business Case for Wellness
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, many organizations saw a significant decrease in their workforce with employees or employees with family members who were classified as high-risk due to conditions like diabetes, serious heart disease and high blood pressure opting to stay home to reduce the possibility of contracting the virus. The long-term benefits of proactive wellness programs have been well-established. But with the pandemic, the immediate financial impact of workers suffering from preventable health conditions became even more clear.
Now is the time for organizations and occupational health and safety professionals to prioritize wellness initiatives including disease management, weight management, hypertension, smoking cessation and more. There’s a tangible business case to be made, and employees are more likely to be receptive to resources and initiatives that help them improve their own health.
Get Communications Right
As the challenges of COVID-19 evolve and guidelines shift, communication remains a fundamental tool in efforts to protect workers. Fostering education, engagement and buy-in for COVID-19 policies and all occupational health and safety efforts is essential. Employers have an opportunity to provide clear, actionable information and policies that cut through scientific jargon, media white noise and political spin.
Whether it is details on the flu shot, a new wellness initiative or the latest COVID-19 guidelines, these messages should be conveyed via the channels employees are already using. It should be engaging and must compel employees to take action and better understand a policy or protocol. In some cases, that means providing rationale behind COVID-19 protocols like distancing or masks, spelling out key details for how many employees can be in an elevator at once or sharing specific rules around entering and exiting the building.
Harnessing the Impact of Integrated Health and Safety Solutions
COVID-19 has underscored the value of comprehensive occupational healthcare services that integrate all aspects of effective health and safety at all levels of the organization. More companies are looking to onsite occupational medical practices to provide that complete and in-depth perspective. The right onsite medical team can provide the right people, processes and protocols to develop a comprehensive approach to all aspects of occupational health and safety, from injury care and case management to compliance and wellness and prevention. Just as critically, this team can help provide strategy in developing an overarching approach to occupational health and safety and serve as an onsite expert and authority in sharing key information with frontline employees and company leaders alike.
COVID-19 has created a new urgency around ensuring the health and safety of workers at all levels. Even the organizations with the most advanced safety cultures and policies are reevaluating how best to protect their entire workforce. Many employers whose operations led them to focus more on injury are now placing stronger emphasis on illness prevention and protection.
A vast majority of employers have met this challenge head-on and created a safe and consistent workforce for employees to return to work. Companies have incorporated the latest guidelines into their return-to-work plans, and they have pivoted when the science or those recommendations changed. It is a testament to their commitment to their employees. Going forward, there is an opportunity to maintain that commitment and foster a healthier workforce in a post-COVID world. Health and safety professionals and company leaders have a key role to play in ensuring ongoing COVID-19 protections are effectively incorporated into broader health and safety efforts.