by Jonathan Poole
Senior EHS Consultant

Like almost everyone else with whom I come into contact (six feet between, of course), I have grown exhausted of COVID-19 and the constraints it places on how I live and work.  My role as an EHS professional is already demanding, regardless of world health conditions, and the latest recommendations from the CDC only add to my never-ending list of daily considerations and responsibilities.  Still, there is something to be recognized about this moment in history that resonates with anyone whose job is to routinely protect others from hazards.  As it turns out, many of the challenges of a pandemic are familiar to EHS managers who confront identical issues day-to day.  With the goal of overcoming such obstacles in mind, consider five lessons that safety professionals should take to heart from the war on COVID-19.

1. The role of information (and misinformation) defines a safety culture.  Safety policies/ procedures must be communicated clearly and effectively. 
One consistent element that separates countries who have successfully addressed the pandemic from those who have not is consistency of messaging.  A constant bombardment of inaccurate, contradictory statements creates confusion and sows the seeds of distrust.  Inconsistent messaging, particularly with topics as critical as safety, convinces workers that management cannot agree on best practices, so standards are out the window.  Keep in mind, that effective communication remains simple and straightforward. It is reinforced during periodic training and whenever inconsistencies are identified.  If employees are not receiving information from you on how to perform their tasks safely, assume they are listening to others.  Are you confident with those instructions?

2. How we respond to ignorance impacts the path to our overall success. 
As the world responds to COVID-19, notice that knee-jerk strategies and failure to act both result in a tremendous loss of resources.  One typically leads to a waste of money while the other costs lives.  Safety, too, can be handled strategically or stupidly or sometimes, not at all.  Successful safety cultures are planned and achieved through a combination of education and enforcement.  Mistakes and near misses should be recognized as opportunities to improve, not as spectacles where workers can be singled out and ridiculed.  If the goal is ownership, collaboration must work both ways with workers willing to provide feedback without threat of repercussions. In addition, employees often take their cues about safety from the approach and demeanor of their EHS staff.  Make sure your attitude about what is wrong demonstrates a level-headed systematic approach to making improvements, not placing blame.

3. Safety is at the mercy of what employees bring with them every day.
In terms of the pandemic, the purpose of repeatedly screening and disinfecting areas is to address the viruses brought there by others.  Similarly, employees continually bring with them their attitudes, weaknesses and distractions and then execute tasks that expose them to additional hazards on the job .  The role of EHS managers is to design procedures and maintain work environments that mitigate controllable risks and limit exposure to serious injuries, regardless of the condition of the worker.  So, while a safety program cannot protect an individual 24/7, the controls in place must consider the condition, including the state of mind, of each person who comes to work every day.  The most effective way to accomplish this is get to know your colleagues and recognize when life outside of the facility is impacting performance inside.  Never underestimate the social element of being an effective EHS professional and use routine interactions to evaluate the awareness of the staff.

4. If rules are arbitrarily enforced, your results will be equally haphazard.
We are supposed to wear masks, but we seldom do.  Am I talking about COVID-19 or respiratory protection for the countless airborne hazards to which workers are daily exposed?  EHS managers recognize this particular struggle playing out across America and understand that standards are as effective as the enforcement program that accompanies them.  For safety programs to succeed, participants must believe that there are consequences, equally applied to everyone, to willfully disobeying safety directives.  Do not serve as the safety police, but instead, craft a facility-wide safety culture that rewards workers for following safety directives.  When mistakes are made, determine the reasons and make sure your response educates more than it penalizes.       

5. Personal freedom is a concept to be reckoned with . . . or is it?
Finally, perhaps the most surprising lesson we can learn from the pandemic is the extent to which our sense of personal freedom dictates our behavior.  As EHS professionals we have all experienced outright refusal by others to follow rules designed for their own protection.  Still, it is almost reassuring to see the social experiment that has unfolded as a result of COVID-19.  Who would have thought we might discover that rejection of common-sense recommendations is our inalienable right? 

How should EHS managers respond to workers who refuse to follow the safety standards established as part of a comprehensive safety program?  Unless there exists a physical limitation or health concern, the response must be swift and consider the greater good.  Our nation, thankfully, guarantees freedom, but employers serve as the discretion of employers.  When even one or two individuals ignore safety standards, they have the potential to create a toxic influence with incalculable consequences.  Sadly, it is sometimes better to let these repeat offenders go and preserve a culture than wait for their inevitable impact.  

While the pandemic (hopefully) is temporary, these identified lessons will be confronted by EHS professionals long into the future.  Each issue offers insight into the challenges of accomplishing an effective safety culture, but more generally, each confronts managing human behavior.  Still, by witnessing the wide variety of COVID-19 responses, we have an opportunity to evaluate what works and what does not.  Succeeding with safety depends in part on recognizing the challenges, so take this moment to learn from the strategies of a world confronting a pandemic.

How do you get started creating a sustainable culture of safety at your facility? The EI Group offers over 30 years of providing EHS solutions to companies large and small. Should you have concerns regarding your company’s safety program, please contact Jonathan Poole at 919-459-5252 or [email protected].