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2105 Ehs Adrennes Feature

Safety Gains a Seat at the Table and Plans to Stay There

June 1, 2021
Lessons learned from the pandemic and how it will change the safety culture.

It looked like a birthday party.

All employees at Lavazza Professional, a manufacturer of coffee products (and one of EHS Today’s America’s Safest Companies in 2020), gathered around the cake wondering aloud whose birthday it was. The cake and decorations were unusual, but Jason Hall is not the most traditional safety leader. In fact, he insisted that everyone sing “Happy Birthday,” although they still did not know whose birthday they were celebrating.

It turns out there was no birthday. Instead, Hall, the company’s health, safety, environmental and security manager, told employees that the amount of time it took to sing that song was the exact amount of time they needed to wash their hands to protect themselves against COVID-19.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of misinformation and fear, so I felt the best approach was to provide our workforce a clear, factual presentation of what this virus was and how we have faced other health concerns in the past,” he says. “I tried to add humor to make the information easier to digest.”

This innovative way to deal with a very difficult and frightening health concern goes beyond clever marketing to get buy-in from employees. It demonstrates an empathy for everyone at the company who had to turn on a dime and create almost error-proof methods to stop the virus from spreading.

Empathy was also the byproduct of actions at the GE Appliances’ 750-acre manufacturing complex in Louisville, Ky., as front-office employees manned the production lines when workers needed to be away from the plant floor to deal with pandemic-related issues.

“More than 1,100 managers and headquarters employees volunteered to work on our assembly lines to address pandemic staffing pressures in our plant,” says Thomas Quick, vice president, human resources, for GE Appliances, a Haier company. Quick says that non-production, salaried employees worked more than 150,000 hours on assembly lines or assuming other responsibilities outside of their normal jobs, such as manning temperature check stations around the clock.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of misinformation and fear, so I felt the best approach was to provide our workforce a clear, factual presentation of what this virus was and how we have faced other health concerns in the past.” —Jason Hall

The ability to step up safety quickly was, in fact, a natural progression for manufacturing companies that have always put safety first, explains Bobby Bono, partner and industrial manufacturing practice leader at PwC. “Safety is something that manufacturers are good at. It’s in their DNA,” Bono says. “They are always trying to figure out ways to be safer, so they were able to respond more quickly to the pandemic than other sectors could.”

Even with a strong safety base, the immediacy of the pandemic required Hall to determine the most efficient methods to handle the situation. “With my military background, I treated the situation as a training action and quickly reached out to vendors and hospitals to get the materials we needed on-site, and so avoided the shortages that many had to deal with.”

That planning turned out to be key when, after a two-week shutdown, the plant reopened and had the necessary tools to protect all staff. “Faced with a variety of information on how to operate, I decided treating our facility like a hospital would ensure that all safety protocols were considered and implemented,” he says. “When we had things under control. We did an analysis of how we could keep the safety procedures going while changing the feeling from a crisis to business-as-normal.”

GE Appliances also closed its manufacturing plants in order to install necessary safety precautions. As its safety culture is so strongly embedded into operations, directions were provided to teams, but they were not mandated. “We let the teams determine how best to implement processes and then shared best practices as we continuously learned and adapted,” Quick says.

Creating safety procedures to allow operations to continue during the pandemic is where Hall found himself, not only on a plant level but on a global level. As Lavazza Professional is a division of a parent company based in Torino, Italy, Hall became the go-to person. “As dealing with the pandemic was outside the realm of other major disruptions, I was brought on to advise our business recovery team on how best to deal with the situation. Everyone was looking squarely at the safety function to navigate this tough situation.”

Hall created guidelines, rules of conduct and even a playbook to deal with the crisis. “Creating these protocols gave us a baseline and a standard for other major disruptions, and it gave the safety function a large role in the executive suite.”

Next Steps

As companies have been operating with these particular safety protocols for more than a year, will they be changed when we are past the pandemic? “We’re going to maintain the systems we have,” Hall says. “I don’t see them changing for the near future.” He says he will continue to view COVID-19 as one would the flu season and keep standard procedures in place that address those concerns.

Hall is also facing other concerns, which he feels need to be addressed immediately as more employees return to the facility. He refers to these concerns as behavioral health issues that have arisen as a direct result of the pandemic, such as employees who lapsed in taking care of their health and have serious health problems. There are also many workers who have been dealing with issues such as isolation, anxiety or depression. The company is going to provide a health education series to tackle these issues, as they affect the company’s entire workforce. “In 2021, I see addressing these issues as my top health priority.”

A Culture Change

As protocols were set up to deal with the mechanics of operations, new ways of working also arose. “With the need to move people away from facilities as much as possible, automation, which has already become important at most facilities, was accelerated,” Bono says. “This is changing the nature of work, and we won’t revert back to the way things were before the pandemic. Companies will require specific skills that can manage digital operations.”

Increasing cross-training as well as upskilling workers to adapt to new technology will be another legacy of the pandemic. More importantly, a culture change has evolved during the pandemic as employees have gained a better appreciation and understanding of all jobs across a company, and that appreciation will remain. “Those salaried workers who went on the line garnered a lot of respect from the workers on the line,” Quick says.

These culture changes will have a positive impact, as Quick believes it will lead to innovation going forward. The collaboration, teamwork and new attitudes necessary to combat the pandemic will continue to become intertwined in a company’s culture. Hall believes that safety will be at the core of this evolving culture—and that safety will be occupying a chair at the executive level for a long time. 

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