Workplace exposures

New ways of working safely

From basic best practices to technology, how employers are adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Photos: Oregon State Building Trades Council

Technology

Speaking during a webinar series presented by the National Safety Council as part of its SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns initiative, BAE Systems’ Safety, Health and Environment Manager Alex Eggleston said the COVID-19 pandemic “is forcing folks to embrace, more readily, technology and innovation.”

NSC says organizations at the forefront of adopting technology during the pandemic “saw a boon” that enabled them “to more quickly shift to new modes of working, leveraging tools and platforms for both safety and productivity.”

Technologies include wearable proximity detectors, contact-tracing apps, touch-free methods for workers to clock in and out, and motion-sensing doors at facilities.

“We started out with, ‘What could we do right away to ensure that our employees were safe and had the best level of protection possible?’” Michelle Garner-Janna, executive director of corporate health, safety and environment at Cummins Inc., told Safety+Health. “Since the early days of the pandemic, our solutions have evolved based on new information as well as new needs. Sometimes, it takes a crisis like this to really see what you’re capable of doing.”

One of the company’s success stories involves the development and use of collaborative robots, or “cobots,” which have been used in its operation for some time but now can be expanded as a tool to help reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“Cobots can allow for an individual employee to perform more than one task,” Garner-Janna said, “while also working collaboratively with the cobot in the workstation and allowing for appropriate social distancing between employees in a safe and efficient manner.”

Bobbie Schaefer, risk engineering manager at the IoT innovation lab at The Hartford insurance company, said during a SAFER webinar that, amid the pandemic, many technology providers either have adapted existing devices or created new ones “to help provide some relief and assistance to employers by helping them in implementing these new safety practices.”

As an example, she pointed to the evolution of artificial intelligence technologies: Whereas the technology already had the capability to identify the presence of – or the lack of – personal protective equipment being worn, Schaefer said some developers have adjusted AI to detect facemask use, too.

(The SAFER technology webinar series is available at no cost at nsc.org/safer.)

Maintaining morale and looking ahead

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has reached the one-year mark, the various adjustments employers have made can still feel burdensome to workers. Adrian Russell, project manager for Mattcon General Contractors Inc., said promoting a message of togetherness among employees has been effective at limiting worker pushback.

“We feel that by individuals taking on a team mentality, being mindful of one another, respecting one another, and doing their best every single day and never taking shortcuts, never cheating the system, we believe that we’re doing everything we can to protect ourselves as well as those around us,” Russell said.

Kathy Freeman, director of safety at HEI Civil, a general contractor, said the company’s campaigns to promote COVID-19 self-awareness help “keep it fresh.” No matter the campaign or activity, supervisors strive to reinforce the theme that worker safety and health is essential to the operation. “It’s been a challenge,” Freeman said, “but they’ve pulled through.”

From morale boosters and workspace adjustments to implementing technology, experts say employers need to both maintain their current efforts and look ahead.

“From a planning standpoint, safety professionals really are going to need to be sure that they have plans in place that are going to work for the next pandemic, because the reality is, we will see another pandemic, likely, in our lifetime,” Roy said. “And so, we need to be better prepared for it.”

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