Workplace exposures

‘Much of 2021 will not be the full return to normal’: NSC summit looks at the future world of work


Itasca, IL — Employers will have to continue COVID-19-related safety measures well into the new year – likely through the summer, according to Justin Rodriguez, a partner with the Boston Consulting Group.

Speaking during the State of COVID-19 Response and Future World of Work Summit, presented by the National Safety Council on Dec. 9 as part of its SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns initiative, Rodriguez said many measures put in place at the beginning of the pandemic to reduce worker exposure to the coronavirus – such as wearing masks or facial coverings, physical distancing, frequent handwashing, and avoiding of large gatherings of people – remain best practices.

He urged employers to consider strong testing, reporting, tracking and contact tracing programs – if they aren’t already in place – as well as pay special attention to at-risk workers and remain mindful of employees’ mental health.

That’s because the pandemic likely won’t end until the fall, under the best-case scenario and even in light of the recent rollout and limited availability of multiple COVID-19 vaccines, noted Dan Kahn, principal at the Boston Consulting Group.

In this scenario, “several highly effective” vaccines receive emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. (A government advisory panel on Dec. 12 recommended one such vaccine for approval by the FDA.) Kahn said additional factors include a well-coordinated supply chain and clear public communication with help from business leaders, leading to greater public acceptance of the vaccines. Without all of this, however, the worst-case scenario, he projected, is perhaps an end to the pandemic one year later – in the fall of 2022.

“The path in front of us remains quite complex and with a great number of unknowns,” Kahn said, “and there’s a long way to go before we can defeat this virus. Much of 2021 will not be the full return to normal that we all want.”

Encourage, not mandate

During a subsequent summit panel discussion, a trio of safety executives said they would encourage their employees to get vaccinated. However, they’d likely stop short of making vaccination a requirement.

“We’re going to err on the side of making it readily available whenever we can,” said David O’Connor, vice president for global security/real estate at Thermo Fisher Scientific. “As we get through the vaccine and as it’s proven safer and safer, hopefully, I think there will be less reluctance.”

Plenty of hurdles lie ahead, according to Michelle Garner-Janna, executive director of corporate health, safety and environment at Cummins Inc. Among them: privacy issues, along with how employees will receive the vaccine and ensuring they get both required doses, when applicable.

“It’s something that’s very high on the priority list,” Garner-Janna said. “We obviously would like for as many of our employees to become vaccinated as they can once it’s available, but there are a lot of ins and outs.”

Speaking during a separate panel discussion, NIOSH Director John Howard cautioned attendees about another emerging dilemma related to vaccines in workplaces: “As we increase the number of workers that have been vaccinated, they are going to be in a workplace with unvaccinated workers, so employers are going to have hybrid workforces, and there’s a lot of issues that are going to arise from managing a hybrid, vaccinated-unvaccinated workforce that we do not yet know exactly how to do.”

Lessons learned from COVID-19

Acknowledging the work of safety pros in protecting workers throughout the pandemic, epidemiologist Abdul El-Sayed posed the basic question: “How do we actually do the work of preventing illness?”

“In the work that you all do, you’re thinking about this every single day,” the former public health commissioner of Detroit, author and current host of the “America Dissected” podcast told attendees during the summit’s initial session. “How do we keep people safe?”

Safety professionals, he said, take on a role akin to public health experts, in which “all of us come together to promote the well-being of all of us in the population.”

The need for large groups of people to act collectively for the good of everyone often can be difficult, El-Sayed acknowledged, and it’s even harder to sustain over time, especially during weeks-long stay-at-home orders in certain parts of the country.

He also shared lessons learned that can provide a path forward. One example: some health care workers wearing trash bags to protect themselves when proper personal protective equipment was unavailable in the early days of the pandemic. El-Sayed said preparation is critical before a crisis situation arises.

“‘Just in time’ means you won’t have time,” he said. “Some things need to be stockpiled, and you need to be thoughtful about how you do that.”

‘Mental health is strongly tied to safety’

Will today’s workers one day reminisce about the way they once commuted to a physical workplace? If geography gradually becomes less critical in a world where work is mostly done virtually, might more employees relocate closer to family support systems, allowing for an improved work-life balance?

As panelists offered these and other thoughts for contemplation during a discussion exploring the future of work, many ideas still returned to a current reality: Employers have and will continue to play a significant role in supporting workers’ mental health and well-being.

“The mental health distress and illness stemming from the pandemic will not disappear as the country recovers and people regain a new sense of normalcy,” said Rachael Cooper, senior program manager, substance use and harm prevention safety, at NSC. “It can be expected that the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to manifest in the coming weeks, months and years. Recognizing this and being proactive in addressing it in the workplace is critical as we explore the future of work.”

Experts encouraged employers to adopt several best practices to accommodate workers, including:

  • Providing thorough mental health training and education
  • Increasing workplace focus on mental health and stress
  • Prioritizing social connectedness
  • Increasing frequency of employee check-ins
  • Establishing and/or maintaining flexible work arrangements

“We do know that mental health is strongly tied to safety, and people who are under a great deal of stress tend to be more prone to have accidents,” said Catherine West, director of global safety and health at Jacobs Engineering. “So, for those that do have to go back to the workplace, how do we maintain those stress levels at a healthy level and not let them become too overwhelmed where they start creating safety issues?

“And it’s so easy for safety professionals to say, ‘Well, somebody was hurt because they weren’t paying attention,’ when a lot of times, it comes down to those mental health aspects. So, we really have to be very keenly in tune with those people going back into the workplaces and the stresses that they may be facing to ensure that we do everything that we can possibly do to keep them safe when they’re back.”

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