While it’s hard to catch a moving target, employers are starting to transition from the pandemic perspective to the endemic one. Guidance for this forward movement came from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, when he said on April 26, 2022, that he feels the U.S has passed the “acute component of the pandemic phase.”
“People are getting pandemic fatigue and are tired of the whiplash effect of having to remove safety standards, such as not wearing masks, and then having to put them back on again,” notes Rachel Walla, owner of Ally Safety, a producer of safety videos. “So, now that we are in a new phase, safety professionals are able to apply the lessons learned during the pandemic to decide how to move forward.”
Walla notes that while in many cases both employers and employees are feeling optimistic, safety professionals need to continue to be prepared for any changes. And they do have processes and procedures to fall back on, given their overall “success” in how they were able to deal with the pandemic and keep employees as safe as possible while continuing to operate their companies.
In her work with companies large and small and in a variety of industries, Walla has discovered some best practices. Her advice is as follows:
- Have as few rules as possible.
- Change rules slowly and deliberately.
- Keep it simple and easy to follow.
- Communicate the why and not just the how.
When analyzing the safety leaders that she worked with over the past two years, Walla found that at companies that are science-based, employees were very accepting of changes that had to be made to address the pandemic. As these employees understood that science changes, the culture was quick to adapt to procedural changes due to the pandemic. However, union shops had a more difficult time adapting to new procedures as generally they tend to be more leery of management. What was universal, however, is that companies that took the pandemic seriously very early on did a lot better than those that, as Walla describes, “dragged their feet.”
And companies that were very clear in communicating with their employees about what they were doing—and why—were very well-received. “Even if people didn’t like the rules, they understood the reasons behind the many safety precautions and felt their employers were trying to do the right thing,” says Walla.
When safety professionals were already part of the core management team, things well smoothly as well. But safety professionals who worked separately from executive management were sometimes susceptible to burnout as there was a lack of coordination about what procedures to follow, and often the safety professionals didn't receive the support they needed.
When it comes to the question of getting the COVID vaccines, Walla feels that this issue has been more or less resolved. “As everyone now has access to the vaccine, and it looks there won’t be a federal vaccine mandate, I think the safety profession is taking a more neutral approach. People can make their own choices and then companies can decide how they want to manage that from a safety perspective.”
In order to continue to be prepared for whatever strains or complications may still arise from the virus, Walla feels that preparation is the best course of action. Her advice is for companies to review their risks.
“Now is the time to do a full hazard assessment. It should be a very thorough review that is given an adequate amount of time. One of the critical parts of this process is to determine what lessons were learned over these past two years and use that to manage the disease as we move from the pandemic stage to the endemic stage.”