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Pandemic Safety Leadership with NSC President and CEO Lorraine Martin

April 9, 2020
Now is the time for business leaders to step up and protect their most valuable asset.

The National Safety Council (NSC) has been urging companies to take "aggressive" measures to protect its workers from COVID-19.

The organization recently polled its members about the pandemic, 70% of which indicated their workforce is still reporting to a facility or job site.

In a subsequent statement released April 2, NSC President and CEO Lorraine Martin said, “In partnership with our employees, we as leaders must be vigilant as we grapple with a workplace safety issue we’ve never seen and face the challenge of protecting those on the front lines. In occupational safety, the onus to protect workers from all hazards, all the time, falls to employers, full stop. In this time of global crisis, we need to understand the critical responsibility we have to our workforce."

She went on to say, “We all must take care of our employees. They are our greatest asset and they deserve protection, now more than ever.”

An EHS Today interview with Martin examined the role of workplace safety amid an evolving crisis.

On essential workers....

Lorraine Martin: Many of our employees are still working. Those are the folks that are making sure that the engine of this nation still moves forward, whether it's manufacturing, farming, healthcare workers or the defense industry. They're all in their work environment having to make sure that they put in place all of the recommendations that have been made for social distancing and for cleaning up the workplace.

On top of all of those new requirements for addressing COVID-19, we also have to understand that our employees are under a lot of stress. They may not be getting enough sleep. They are probably doing jobs that they haven't done before and may not have the training that they're used to having to conduct those operations. So it's really important that we double down on standard safety protocols and training and awareness in making sure we're taking care of our employees' mental health and physical health, now that they're dealing with these added stresses.

On working from home...

Martin: There are still a lot of risks in the house. What we are seeing is that it's actually riskier than a workplace because we've spent so much attention - which is fantastic - in our nation of bringing down workplace fatalities, but homes still have risk to them. It's important for you to be alert to be rested and to make sure you're looking at the ergonomic environment you're doing your work in. You didn't expect to be doing work for your employer at the dining room table, and now it's important to make sure that you're bringing all those practices that you had in your office and practicing them for yourself.

On changing recommendations regarding illness prevention...

Martin: It's really important for employers to communicate regularly about what these requirements are. And then to make sure that their work environments are equipped with the right materials so that the employees can do what's being requested whether that's disinfecting for high-clean, high-touch areas, disposable gloves, masks as appropriate and sanitizing. And those are really important for the employer to make sure that they're available.

Personal protective equipment is important in our health care environments, but it's equally important in many of the manufacturing and at-work environments that are still needing to do things and do things safely when they're around other human beings. First and foremost, communicate, make sure you have the resources and then model it for managers and supervisors that are in those work environments. Make sure that you are following those requirements to the letter so that you can help your employees know how important it is. 

On worker safety for manufacturers that are shifting to produce ventilators...

Martin: This really goes for any time you ask an employee to do something they haven't done before, or to do it on top of another job or to do it in a way that they haven't gotten the training for. No matter what operation someone's doing, whether it's, you know, pitching in right now, in creating ventilators or other PPE, we need to make sure that they're following the federal guidelines for hygiene, but also to make sure that we're addressing the issues of distraction and self-awareness and complacency to some degree.

We're also dedicated to providing the support that others need from us, but it's important as we're doing those things, especially if employees are doing work they're not typically accustomed to, is to really stop and ask yourself, what do we need to do to do this safely? What do we need to do to make sure that we're not only following the new hygiene rules but also standard safety protocols?  So it's a time to pause, make sure employees voice their concerns, no matter what operation, but especially if they're doing something that they haven't done before and to make sure that we're taking action to keep them safe, not only for the hygiene issues, but also traditional safety issues.

On mental health and substance abuse...

Martin: With any kind of natural disaster or major stress item for our nation, we often see a significant amount of mental health and substance abuse issues on the other side of that, whether it's Katrina or fire in some areas, a lot of folks are under a lot of stress in those situations. Right now that can cover our entire nation and in some cases for our entire industry.

It’s not only the people that perhaps are out of work but also the people that are at work that are in very stressful situations. In a normal situation, before all of this happened for our nation, we saw 75% of businesses say they were already directly impacted by opioid misuse and opioids are still the number one preventable death in our nation. One in 98 adults is going to be perhaps dying from an opiate, opioid overdose and at this point, it's still higher than dying from a car crash.

As these added stresses are put on top of that equation, we know that we have to do more. We have to make sure that employers are providing for their employees the full range of health care benefits, through their employee assistance programs(EAP) or through regular medical and health care to make sure that they're getting a full range of options and treatment. Everyone's challenge is going to be different, whether they're facing substance abuse, stress, grief, other family problems, alcohol abuse and so it's just making sure we have a full range of support features there for those that work and for those who are no longer working or to make sure that our communities are providing those. It's quite possible they don't have the safety net of an (EAP) program, but those community programs need to be even more supported and invested in by all of us during this time.

About the Author

Stefanie Valentic

Stefanie Valentic was formerly managing editor of EHS Today, and is currently editorial director of Waste360.

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