Amid this unprecedented pandemic, an expression comes to my mind: “It hit me like a ton of bricks.” The immediate impact of COVID-19 has been, obviously, widespread and devastating, both from worker safety and economic points of view. Many industries have had to resort to severe budgetary cuts. This otherwise dismal picture has created challenges as well as opportunities for astute EHS managers. This article will present some considerations for EHS management in these difficult times.
It is heartening to note that companies have shown remarkable resilience in the face of nearly devastating circumstances. Companies and workforces have made remarkable adjustments in work patterns. “Brick-and-mortar” tasks like face-to-face meetings, travel, personal collaboration and paper reports have been replaced by their digital counterparts, such as virtual meetings and on-line collaboration. This pandemic shall pass and eventually (say, in a couple of years), the economy will rebound. In the meantime, consider the following strategic steps:
● Resist making budgetary cuts reflexively.
● Schedule turnarounds early, rather than late.
● Digitization, collaboration and document updates.
In the face of sudden economic upheaval caused by COVID-19, it is likely that a manager may have to respond ultra-quickly to demands from top management for budgetary cuts. However, a too-quick response could hurt EHS management near-term or in the long run. This could even end up increasing overall risk to your plant.
Prioritize functional areas according their “safety criticality,” or risk level. HAZOP (Hazard and Operability) would have identified and classified findings according to risk level—high risk, medium risk and low risk. Try to defer working on “low risk” items. The key is if risk is manageable, you can implement budget cuts without adverse impact on safety.
In communicating to top management, state your basis for budget cuts, e.g., take a risk-based approach.
No matter how difficult times we experience, keep in mind that your workers are our strength. Encourage them. Listen to their concerns. Show empathy—not simply by words but by action as well. A number of companies have developed internal assistance for their workers.
Although traditionally, the role of the EHS manager in turnaround planning has been peripheral, today EHS managers at plant levels play a pivotal role in planning. Companies schedule turnaround to align with reliability/maintenance considerations and regulatory concerns. If a turnaround is planned for a year from now and market demand today is severely depressed, it may be worth considering taking the turnaround earlier. The reasoning is two-fold:
● You will be able to meet customers’ demand for your products.
● You will be prepared with reliable equipment when the economy rebounds.
Of course, turnarounds do cost and present added risk—contract workers, their training, protocols for work and response to emergency, added equipment, and many other factors.
Turnaround scheduling is by no means a simple task—it involves combined considerations of cost and safety/environmental and market risk. Strategically, though, it might merit your consideration if you can meet your customers’ demands and can manage safety/environmental risk.
As stated earlier, digitization has been taking place throughout all industries, although the pace of digitization varies from one company to another. COVID-19 has accelerated that pace. This is not to say that digital transformation is a cake-walk. Consider the following points:
● Convert all safety documents (e.g., EHS procedures, performance indicators, HAZOP records, reports, OSHA records and others) to digital form. Of course, this conversion has to be in alignment with economic constraints.
● For multi-site or multi-nation organizations, enhance on-line collaboration, while maintaining cyber security.
● Develop performance indicators which include financial metrics or indices and share them with top management.
● Make sure documents are updated periodically and are accessible easily.
● Seek appropriate IT support.
Digitization will facilitate training—the focus should be on cost effectiveness. Consider:
● If you have internal expertise, develop your own training and training. If not, seek help from seasoned professionals.
● With outside trainers, seek arrangements by which future training may be conducted at lower rates.
● Seek relevant “free” training from vendors, such as lockout/tagout, confined space entry and others.
To sum up, this pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges, as well as opportunities, for EHS managers. EHS managers play a pivotal role in positioning their companies to productively harness coming changes while minimizing risk.
G.C. Shah, PE, CSP, CFSE, MBA, is a senior consultant in process safety, occupational safety, fire protection, environmental and industrial hygiene issues at Wood Group, a global project management, engineering, procurement and construction operations company serving the upstream oil and gas, refining and chemicals, pipeline, automation and control, and industrial markets. He also conducts training.