Covid-19: Impact on Health and Safety in the Workplace
Keeping safe and healthy in the workplace is important at any time, but even more so in times like these.
Covid-19 has thrown the world of work upside down, with key challenges being to keep businesses afloat as well as managing safety and security at work, and now also at the home office.
Many employers followed governmental guidance back in March to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19 by arranging, where possible for employees to work from home. However, there are many industries and businesses where work from home was not a possibility for some employees. Businesses needed to consider what a COVID-safe workplace looked like and how it could be effectively managed.
Under Australian WHS law, all employers are required to manage the risk of COVID-19 to workers and others in the work environment. Employers have a duty of care to their employees to safeguard their health and wellbeing.
As Australia starts its recovery from COVID-19, organisations are returning to work. But it won’t be business as usual. In the ‘new normal’, leaders and WHSE professionals must plan around emerging risks to ensure the safety of their people. But how do businesses assess the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in their workplace and how can they plan for preventive measures for the return to the workplace?
Our first WHSE roundtable was conducted by Michele Beale, Head of Safety Frazer Jones Australia, with a group of Heads of Health and Safety professionals across a range of industry sectors. The topic for the virtual roundtable in this series was “Covid-19: Impact on Health and Safety in the Workplace”.
From the conversation we compiled the following key takeaways:-
What were the measures put in place for industries that needed to continue operations during the pandemic lockdowns?
Preparing a workplace to operate safely in the COVID-19 era means thinking differently. Making changes to the safety protocols in order to protect workers and the business as a whole. It’s about being proactive and ahead of the game.
- Managing employee numbers and enforcing social distancing is essential when possible. Focussing on shift separations to avoid the risk of one person infecting 4 or 5 different teams which would result in an entire factory shutting down
- Restricting or limiting workplace site visits and having strict protocols in place for all visitors to site is a basic requirement
- Some organisations have implemented well-being assessments, with nurses on-site to conduct health checks as people come into work for the day
- Enforcing hygiene procedures with hand washing and implementation of compulsory mask wearing. To ensure compliance, companies must supply masks and sanitizer for all employees
- Implementing temperature checks to ensure employees arriving on site do not sure symptoms of being unwell. Whilst temperature checking does not replace mask wearing or social distancing (as data suggests), if someone does show a temperature, they can be refused entry to site
- Recording of employee health checks and temperature checks can then assist in contract tracing if the need arises
- A by-product of temperature checking is that it acts as a visual reminder for people, “don’t come to work if you are feeling sick, as you will be checked”
- Some companies have introduced extra sick leave for workers to use if they feel unwell and need to be tested for COVID19 and isolate whilst awaiting results
- Besides informing workers about changed industrial safety procedures such as those above, workplace representatives must emphasise that they are there to provide support to all workers and that they can respond to any uncertainty that employees may have.
What will be the tipping point whereby the “novelty” of working from home will impact people’s engagement with the business?
Company culture is fostered, in large part, by employees coming together and engaging in team-building activities and division- or company-wide meetings—so having disjointed teams can make this hard to accomplish. Developing a company culture isn’t just something to be done for its own sake—it has meaningful effects on employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity. The COVID-19 forced lockdowns and increased number of employees working from home, has impeded organisations from creating and solidifying their company culture.
- There was a certain novelty factor around working from home at the start of this pandemic. Most were happy and grateful to have this flexibility. However, as the pandemic continues, it is starting to be perceived in a negative light
- People are starving for connection. Where companies would normally have 15 people turn up to a wellbeing session in the lunchroom, there are now have 130 people joining in on a meeting virtually
- Whilst video chat has helped employees stay connected during lockdowns, “Zoom fatigue” is now real. We’re on video calls more than ever before, with some days filled with back-to-back calls, and many are finding it exhausting. The impact of Zoom fatigue or video call burnout is that employees suffering from decreased social interactions, which in the long-term impacts employee engagement
- Employees are all feeling the impacts of isolation and not being able to collaborate in person. There is a lack of ability to “just chat” informally about projects or activities. These casual interactions are missing when work functions are being carried out remotely and it is starting to show on employee engagement.
How is mental health being managed during remote working and how is family violence and abuse identified?
Government organisations and businesses have told us that if we stay home, we will keep ourselves and our communities safe from COVID19, however, the home may not be safe for people that are subject to domestic violence and abuse. There are many that use work as an escape from home, an escape from the abuse or violence, and now this has been taken away from them. The coronavirus pandemic has brought the topic to the forefront for many organisations.
- Employers have an important role to play in addressing domestic violence because of the stay-at-home orders governments have issued
- It is essential for businesses to communicate with all employees about the employee assistance programs (EAPs) that are available to provide confidential counselling for employees
- Providing checklists for managers on how to interact and best shape conversations with employees, and training leaders on how to pick up on cues when having these conversations
- When working in a physical office it is possible for employers to pick up on body language cues, so when team members are working from home, and that they might be in a difficult situation, it’s important to look for other cues and really listen to what employees have to say
- A gentle approach to employee communications on family violence and abuse is to include these topics into surveys and allow people to respond anonymously if they choose
What impact has Covid-19 had on interstate and international business travel, and the everyday commute to the office?
Travelling for business has always required a certain degree of planning and intentionality. But in today’s COVID-19 world, the need for strategic forethought is more important than ever before. How you prepare will dictate whether or not it’s a safe, healthy, and productive trip.
- Whether it’s for business or pleasure, business travel will never look the same. When 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred in the USA, the entire global airline industry changed in a matter of days. Children could no longer visit the cockpit, all hand luggage and persons passed through metal detectors and all liquids were limited for carry-on. The travel industry is about to undergo significant changes again
- For the safety and wellbeing of employees, most companies across Australia have stopped all business travel both regionally and interstate
- State government quarantine measures have also forced businesses to pause business travel (as businesses are not prepared to have staff completing 14days of hotel quarantine)
- Business trips where people travel just because “it’s the way it’s always been done” will need rethinking and retooling. Some businesses will choose to resume to normal, while others will leverage their newfound affinity for Zoom to cancel the bulk of their travel
- As workplaces start to reopen, and staff begin to return to the workplace, some workers are concerned, not about the physical work environment, but their means of transport to get to and from the office. Concerns of travelling on public transport, being in an enclosed environment with potential exposure to the virus that they have been avoiding whilst being in lockdown and working from home
- Whilst there is still no cure or prevention measure (vaccine) available to COVID-19, many companies are introducing a ‘work from anywhere’ type philosophy. If you don’t feel comfortable travelling to the office, then don’t. Companies want all employees to be fit and healthy and work productively. If they are scared and anxious then they are not in the best frame of mind to be working.
If you are interested in being part of our conversation and/or would like to join one of our WHSE Virtual Roundtables, please get in touch with Michele Beale, Head of Safety Frazer Jones Australia.