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Safety21: Back in the Saddle Again

Oct. 6, 2021
The safety profession has done itself proud during the pandemic and is ready to make up for lost time.

That hootin’ and hollerin’ you may have heard coming out of Austin, Texas, back in September wasn’t due to any country music festival—it was the cheers of the safety community finally getting to attend a major event again: ASSP’s Safety21. Yes, attendance was down a bit from typical in-person ASSP shows in the past, but the overwhelming feeling within the session rooms and exhibit hall was one of relief mixed with celebration. It just felt good to see a gathering of safety professionals again, even with social distancing and masked-up protocols.

Just days before Safety21 began, President Joe Biden announced that he had directed OSHA to write an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) that would require businesses employing 100 or more to insist employees either get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing for COVID. So with Jim Frederick, acting head of OSHA, already announced as a keynote speaker, the buzz around the show speculated on how much Frederick would say about exactly how the agency planned to enforce the mandate.

Frederick ended up appearing virtually rather than in person, and in his prepared remarks he completely avoided commenting on the ETS. However, he did say, “Vaccination is the ultimate step to protect workers, and our priority is the safety and health of workers.” Frederick also noted that OSHA has requested a $73 billion budget increase and 362 additional employees, as he said the agency’s biggest need was to add more enforcement and compliance personnel. So that gives you some idea of how OSHA inspectors may be planning for a dramatic increase in caseloads.

Although COVID-19 was understandably on every attendee’s mind at Safety21, Wendy Burkett, global safety director with Ford Motor, pointed out that, “Safety incidents didn’t stop happening at Ford just because we were in a pandemic. People still get hurt and things still fall, so we had to keep our focus on core safety events even as we also focused on keeping everyone safe from COVID.”

Speaking on a panel focusing on business continuity efforts at large companies, Burkett reminded the audience that the automotive industry was shut down for two months in the early days of COVID last year, and like other manufacturers, Ford pivoted to making PPE such as face masks, face shields, gowns and ventilators. The company’s Project Apollo initiative produced more than 140 million units of PPE, most of which went to healthcare workers and communities, but some also to Ford’s own employees.

“Manufacturing facilities aren’t designed and set up for people to work 6 feet apart,” Burkett notes, “so the creativity and ingenuity of the automobile manufacturers to adapt to social distancing was nothing short of amazing. The auto industry really came together to emphasize workplace safety.”

Another sector that’s had to reinvent itself during the pandemic is the waste management industry. Jim Olson, VP of safety with Republic Services, a $9 billion solid waste collection and disposal company, described how quickly his business changed. “Instead of people generating a lot of waste while at businesses, they started creating it at home,” he related, which meant shifting Republic’s business model. “We had to train our drivers on different types of trucks that would go into neighborhoods rather than to companies.”

Perhaps no company has been more visible throughout the pandemic than retail giant Amazon, whose parcel delivery business more than doubled in 2020. Amazon, in fact, has quickly become the third-biggest deliverer of parcel shipments in the U.S., ahead of FedEx (USPS and UPS are still numbers 1 and 2). That kind of growth led to a lot of process changes for Amazon—150, in fact, according to Heather MacDougall, VP, worldwide of workplace health and safety.

“We invested $1.5 billion to react to COVID,” she explained. “We built our own COVID testing lab for our employees. We provided on-site vaccination events. We developed and then began selling face shields and developed the Distance Assistant to monitor social distancing at our facilities.”

Amazon, MacDougall added, wants to be known not only as Earth’s Best Place to Work, but also Earth’s Safest Place to Work, and to that end the company will focus heavily on community and the environment.

Burkett observed that COVID has thrust the safety profession to the forefront of business planning. “We now have a voice in the room, and I think we’ll continue to have that voice going forward. The way safety professionals performed during the pandemic has been a proud moment for us.”

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