by Jonathan Poole
Senior EHS Consultant

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic deserves the attention and resources it continues to receive in the American workplace.  Numerous EHS managers who built their careers on anticipating the unexpected wonder how they failed to see this crisis coming.  As businesses look for any light at the end of the tunnel, health and safety professionals vow to learn from this coronavirus experience and use its distinct lessons to prepare EHS programs for the future.  In fact, there seems to exist a collective pledge that never again will the EHS community be taken by surprise by such a foreseeable scenario.

But even as health and safety professionals continue to wage battles with ever-present COVID-19 challenges: screening employees, PPE availability, sanitation concerns, etc., more ominous EHS concerns persist.  What has become of regularly scheduled safety audits and employee training in the age of the coronavirus?  With fewer workers and abbreviated schedules, why are so many companies reporting delays in safety reporting?  The answer, it seems, is simple.  For many businesses, the pandemic has become not only their biggest EHS concern, it is now their sole EHS effort.

The workplace is different.  EHS goals should be the same.

As policy and budgets target COVID-19 solutions, traditional safety priorities are overlooked.  Ironically, safety routines have never been more important.  Reduced staffing and social distancing profoundly impact workplace procedures, making many SOPs impractical, if not impossible.  Added space between workstations and face coverings complicate communication between colleagues; confusion is commonplace, and the opportunities for accidents ubiquitous.  Today’s workers are being asked to alter a variety of learned behaviors; many must now perform unfamiliar activities and report to different shifts. Paychecks are at stake, so employees are silently accepting roles that make them uncomfortable and jobsites unsafe.

New facility layouts and processes are creating new, unimagined hazards that put workers at previously unidentified risks. Temporary adjustments made to accommodate pandemic requirements often do not include revised JSAs, and safety documentation, in general, appears less of a priority in the “temporary” world of COVID-19.  Since no one really knows how long businesses may operate under new mandates (what phase is your state in?), few EHS departments are making concerted efforts to effectively communicate safety considerations.

Moreover, production schedules vary wildly throughout industries with some facilities accelerating production to keep up with demand as others sit idle.  Segments of workers rush to fill orders as other groups grow complacent and careless.  Reported pandemic numbers have become as routine as daily weather forecasts, distracting many as they wonder what will happen to my job next week?  Stress is everywhere, including at home, where the list of personal challenges (childcare, eldercare, finances, illness, etc.) haunt workers as they struggle to meet employer’s constantly evolving expectations.

In essence, the majority of today’s work environments operate in a state of chaos with change and uncertainty forcing everyone to question the decisions that used to be routine.  Under these circumstances it should not be surprising that the majority of employees report no longer feeling safe at work.

How EHS Programs Should Respond
Toxic atmospheres and hazardous energy do not disappear during pandemics.  The role of health and safety professionals is to integrate new solutions into comprehensive EHS programs, not abandon the processes already in place.  Appropriate procedural modifications and improved communication strategies must accompany changes to staffing, scheduling and logistics.  Adjustments, even temporary adjustments, require safety analysis when risk is introduced.   

Training is essential, particularly instruction that emphasizes procedural expectations.  For every staff video or slideshow that focused on COVID-19 since February 2020, how many presentations on ergonomics or emergency action plans have been delivered across the country?  Sure, safety information should be timely, but neglecting annual training in lieu of the latest pandemic recommendations suggests that one threat is more critical than the other.  Eventually, we hope, the pandemic will be under control.  What will be the state of your facility’s safety record if you spend this time ignoring hazards (confined space, fall protection, lockout/tagout, etc.) that are as dangerous as the coronavirus and remain once a vaccine is introduced?

Maintaining annual training and safety inspections, even during a pandemic, is essential to normal operations.  With so many facilities altering staffing, job responsibilities and production schedules, the need for routine is palpable, and safety activities offer employees consistency and reassurance.  Attention to COVID-19 is deserved, but failure to keep pace with existing EHS initiatives translates into compliance deficits when the pandemic is over, and we all return to work.

The EI Group recognizes the challenges that health & safety professionals face in this time of uncertainty.  Our virtual training options and understanding of coronavirus standards make us uniquely qualified to help under less than ideal circumstances.  Contact us at (800) 717-3472 or [email protected] and let our team of EHS professionals assist you with COVID-19 issues or the aspects of your safety program that require attention, pandemic or not.