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4 Workplace Safety Issues Caused by COVID-19

A technician doing a security inspection inside a vehicle protected with a mask and gloves to prevent the spread of virus

Everybody has the coronavirus on their minds. But no one else is thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic quite like safety professionals.

Safety folks have to figure out how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among workers on their job sites. But because the virus outbreak is rapidly transforming how workplaces operate, EHS managers also have to contend with a cascade of new workplace safety concerns.

From a safety perspective, keeping pace with these changes will be daunting. Many of the emerging on-the-ground safety challenges will be very site-specific. With that said, there are several broad patterns that are evident in industries across North America. From the impact of social distancing to the increased dangers of human factors, here is an outline of four major safety issues caused by COVID-19.

Changing work environments and procedures

This time last year, almost no one had ever heard the term “social distancing”. Fast forward to today, and these two words now appear in a wide range of news articles, government directives, conversations with family and friends.

The implications of social distancing on the workplace are profound. Numerous government jurisdictions have placed restrictions on how companies can operate. Many organizations are also taking additional precautions to enact social distancing in the workplace.

These measures are aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, and their goal is laudable. There is credible evidence to suggest that they can slow the transmission and because it can also slow other viruses in the future this practice could stick around for the long haul. 

In the short term, they also cause sudden, dramatic changes to work environments and procedures especially where skeleton crews will cover the gaps. And that can lead to all sorts of other safety concerns.

Many workers used to ask a colleague for help in carrying a heavy object. With additional distance between people in the workplace, they are more likely to pick up the object themselves, which increases their risk of back injury. Other employees will have to do the work of two people instead of one, as more people take time off because they’re sick or workers are put on different job rotations.

Additional safety concerns may only arise in the coming weeks and months. They may be entirely unpredictable, but will almost definitely need to be addressed as soon as they appear. This is where it’s essential to pay attention to near-miss reports, and attentively listen to sharp-eyed frontline leaders and employees. They will be the first people to recognize new hazards that appear because of workplace changes.

There’s one final, and important, consideration as changes are rapidly implemented—how they are communicated to employees. Even when everything in the work environment is status quo, supervisors play a key role in discussing safety issues with workers on a daily basis. During pandemics and other times of crisis, their role is magnified and their communication skills are put to the test.

For their part, safety professionals should focus on equipping supervisors with the most direct, easy-to-understand messaging as possible. While it may not be feasible to be doing formal training during this crisis,  it may be advisable to provide frontline supervisors with brief, positive reminders of the need to talk about safety clearly and frequently in order to combat abrupt amendments to working environments and procedures.

Volatility in production demands

Almost every industry is experiencing a sense of upheaval during the outbreak of COVID-19. Many are getting hit with a downturn in production as consumers shelter in place and other companies in the supply chain go through their own slowdowns or, more dramatically, are shut down entirely.

Other companies are going through the opposite. A sudden spike in purchases will leave many organizations struggling to keep up with orders that are pouring in for supplies to help people weather the pandemic.

On a normal day, these changes in production demands can pose a major challenge. Line speeds may need to be sped up or slowed down. The sizes of work crews may fluctuate wildly as dependable employees are put on furlough or inexperienced temp workers are pressed into service. These production demands lead to some obvious human factors, including rushing to meet increased quotas, or frustration and complacency as the pace of work slackens.

Add these changes to other organizational shifts, like altered work environments and procedures, and the result is a stew of human factors, as well as secondary factors that may arise, such as worker fatigue, stress, lack of communication and a general sense of uncertainty.

More off-the-job pressures

COVID-19 will lead to more stress at work for many people. But the job isn’t the only place where people will be feeling additional pressure. Life at home can be incredibly stressful for everyone during a pandemic, especially for families that include elderly or immunocompromised people.

Disruptions to daycares or schools can upend families with children. The loss of income from one spouse, or even the danger that layoffs may be on the horizon, can cause all sorts of strain on a household. And for the 16 million U.S. health care workers and their relatives, the heightened dangers and exhaustion of working during a pandemic can cause considerable mental strain.

As this webinar on crossover/spillover points out, it’s well-documented that stresses at home are often carried into the workplace, and vice versa. Supervisors and safety managers should keep in mind that even if there are no obvious causes of human factors on the job site, many employees will arrive to work each day with a great deal of stress, frustration and other problems caused by off-the-job sources.

Many of these issues will be deep-rooted and potentially unresolvable in the short term—after all, there are no silver bullets for anything during a pandemic. But there are steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects of these human factors, from modified work schedules to frank discussions that make the dangers caused by these mental states more obvious. Amidst everything else, it’s up to safety managers and frontline supervisors to keep these factors from going completely unnoticed and unaddressed.

Fewer resources for emergency response

There’s one final ominous issue that is often overlooked in discussions of how workplace safety is affected by pandemics—and that’s what happens if something goes wrong.

Right now, emergency rooms are packed, hospitals are overwhelmed and first responders are scrambling to keep up with the increased number of calls they receive. The systems we rely on to deal with all sorts of emergencies, including workplace incidents like serious injuries and fires, are all operating at or above capacity.

This means that organizational disaster response policies and contingency plans should be revisited to see how a potentially dramatic increase in response times may alter outcomes. And keep in mind that when the fire alarm goes off or an ambulance is urgently required, help may be slower in arriving. And safety professionals will be all too aware of the additional challenges that can pose.

All told, these issues can put people’s lives at risk. There is a very real possibility that incidents, serious injuries and fatalities in the workplace could be on the rise due to issues stemming from COVID-19. Some of them are beyond an EHS manager’s ability to resolve. But addressing the human factors elements can temper the additional dangers that emerge in a pandemic, save lives and slow the spread of the virus.

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