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How Safety Leaders Can Manage the Impact of COVID-19

Jan. 21, 2021
Here are five ways EHS professionals can keep their operations running safely and smoothly during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have varied and widespread impacts on enterprises in nearly all industries as well as across the entire public sector. Besides sustaining significant hits to their revenues, employers able to remain or resume operating have had to navigate dramatic changes to their workplaces, business processes and workforces.

Even under these dynamic conditions, ensuring employee health, wellness and safety still ranks among any organization’s highest priorities. Although EHS professionals play a central role in these critical initiatives, the development and implementation of effective health and safety programs that address evolving needs require close coordination with multiple functions and disciplines. They also call for ready access to timely data about regional and local virus spread rates, employee infections and exposures, as well as details on evolving employer requirements emanating from federal, state and local governments and regulators.

Here are five ways EHS professionals can ramp up their organization’s focus on health and safety to address the evolving challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of whether they and their colleagues are able to work on-site with ready access to their employer’s facilities or must work remotely, EHS professionals can continue to have a measurable impact on their organization’s ability to deal with the effects of COVID-19 on their enterprises.

1. Embrace new responsibilities as working from home becomes the new normal.

Across the U.S. and around the world, work life and social life have changed dramatically from the impacts of COVID-19. All industries have been impacted by the virus—from manufacturing and industrial operations to retail, banking, financial and professional services, the public sector and educational institutions. How and where individuals work has been transformed, in some cases significantly, in only a few months.

Prior to the pandemic, roughly 3.6% of the total U.S. employee workforce was working from home at least half the time or more, according to Global Workplace Analytics. However, by the end of 2021, an estimated 25-30% of employees will be working from home multiple days each week, according to the Global Work-from-Home Experience Survey.

These new challenges have also reimagined the roles and responsibilities of EHS professionals. In addition to their traditional focus areas on regulatory compliance and enhanced safety culture, EHS professionals are taking on additional roles involving data science, ergonomics, employee well-being, enhanced collaboration tools, and a deeper focus on industrial hygiene and occupational health.

2. Recognize the need for a heightened focus on ergonomics.

With more people working remotely as well as in retrofitted and different work environments, a new push for ergonomic best practices has become top of mind for EHS professionals. As one example, many employers lack a process to facilitate and ensure safely working from home. Notably, employees often have difficulty obtaining proper equipment to ensure an ergonomically sound home workspace.

Within their home environments, employees typically station themselves at raised kitchen counters, coffee tables, or even on their couch or in their bed. Many risks exist with these remote work environments as home workspaces are typically non-adjustable, which increases the risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) as compared to traditional office settings. Some of these risk factors include prolonged laptop usage, inadequate seating and fixed-height worksurfaces.

As an interim remedy, many employers now provide equipment stipends to help mitigate the cost of appropriate office furniture to facilitate a sound work environment. However, although these measures may be well-intentioned, most employees lack sufficient awareness of ergonomics to make informed decisions about their work-from-home setups.

Consequently, many EHS professionals and ergonomists are now prioritizing the use of virtual ergonomic assessments to better manage home-based workstations and work environments with an emphasis on proper workspaces that include correct posture, table or desk and chair setups.

By using virtual assessments, EHS professionals can get a better handle on varied office setup risks while helping manage work/rest cycles, awkward angles and repetitive tasks (typing/clicking), all of which represent injury risks that can be addressed with effective ergonomics solutions and best practices.

3. Adopt a team approach, making use of collaborative tools.

Now, more than in the past, the team approach to managing workplace and remote work arrangements has taken center stage as employers work to navigate the challenges of the sustained pandemic. Over the years, EHS professionals have often been the catalyst to bringing about greater collaboration among team members from various functions in all types of work environments.

Ordinarily, EHS professionals would conduct frequent (daily, weekly or monthly) safety meetings to address key safety topics affecting an organization. These meetings typically were held in person so all risks could be discussed and prioritized, and any related remedial actions could be implemented on a coordinated, programmed basis. The pandemic has made it critical for EHS professionals to take a more proactive role in driving this process.

Furthermore, given how quickly circumstances can evolve, EHS team members may need to leverage virtual briefings and information-sharing technologies to help document and quantify safety issues, risks and non-conformance situations in real-time. To facilitate prompt action, EHS professionals must capture a steady flow of inputs and insights from facilities and those working remotely or traveling on business to assess, prioritize and manage what may be an evolving set of critical risks.

4. Understand how technology and automation can help.

In the dynamic workplaces of today, the need for effective automation and streamlined processes has become critical to compress response times to COVID-19 outbreaks and employee incidents, as well as to make on-the-fly adjustments to safety planning and management.

With fewer resources at facilities and reduced staff to manage risks associated with a dynamic operating environment, automated processes not only help ensure compliance, but also allow the EHS professional to refocus priorities to address elevated health and safety risks at individual facilities as changes are made to their operations.

Besides retrofits to provide appropriate social distancing for on-site workers, employers are making refinements to operations to accommodate new product lines, such as the manufacture of PPE or accelerated production to meet dramatic spikes in demand. These include situations facing food and other manufacturing industries, warehousing and distribution, among other sectors. Under these circumstances, EHS professionals may need to be the catalyst to drive the adoption and implementation of technology solutions to maintain or adapt their enterprise’s safety practices to what can be rapidly evolving work conditions.

During the past year, the accelerated adoption of technologies—such as wearable devices to measure ergonomics risk factors, remote sensors to measure vitals and work activities in remote locations, and sensors to capture environmental exceedances—have all helped to roll-up risk factors and safety metrics. Many of these tools can be utilized in a dynamic work environment where EHS professionals may be working remotely while managing exposures.

Incidents, near misses and potential hazards historically recorded on paper, and tracked and assessed using spreadsheets can now be reported instantly using online portals. Captured data can be analyzed quickly and accurately through artificial intelligence and machine learning-supported predictive modeling tools, shared internally to drive remedial actions and communicated externally to ensure timely regulatory compliance.

5. Stay aware of the pandemic’s widespread potential implications on safety and health.

With new guidance and local requirements now in place in many areas of the world, EHS has moved deeper into areas involving industrial hygiene and occupational health. With mask mandates, for example, EHS professionals may be actively involved with employer programs for fit testing and maintaining adequate levels of PPE across all of an organization’s operations. These responsibilities include addressing logistical challenges to ensure PPE is supplied and available at all pertinent sites.

Meanwhile, EHS professionals also may be summoned to play a key role in helping assess and adjust their enterprise’s response to catastrophic events, including natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, floods and earthquakes. Emergency response and business continuity plans may need to be adjusted to address issues related to social distancing, adequate PPE supplies, remote workers, and scaled down or expanded operations, among other factors.

As these plans are updated to address the operational changes, regional pandemic outbreaks and other circumstances, EHS needs to be a key part of the planning team to make sure any adjustments in planning consider COVID-19 appropriate health and safety precautions.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have widespread impacts on governments, communities and employers throughout the U.S. and around the world, EHS professionals bring critical skills and expertise their organizations need to keep employees and customers as safe as possible as they navigate the various challenges the pandemic presents.

Sean Salvas is senior market strategy lead-EHS with Origami Risk LLC, a provider of risk management solutions.

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