Opening Session: NIOSH director warns of COVID-19 endemic, looks to the future
Itasca, IL — The future of work may include safety professionals contending with COVID-19 on some level for a long time, even with the recent rollout and widespread availability of vaccines.
That was the warning from NIOSH Director John Howard during the Opening Session of the virtual National Safety Council Safety Congress & Expo on March 3. Although the disease might not be as deadly as it has been over this past year, COVID-19 will likely remain an endemic or a long-lasting disease similar to the flu.
Howard said that could mean preparing for increased disease surveillance; looking at COVID-19 variants to see if they’re more transmissible, more dangerous or have a greater ability to evade vaccines; and perhaps planning for booster vaccine shots.
“We’re not going to get rid of it; coronaviruses don’t disappear,” he said. “It’s not just an emergency that will pass tomorrow. We have to prepare for it. We have to look at our near future.”
Howard also introduced a thought exercise that safety professionals and others can use called “strategic foresight,” which comes from a 2007 book written by Andy Hines and edited by Peter Bishop.
Howard said the process begins by looking at which “domains” need attention, taking in all of the needed information and then turning all that into scenarios – some of which may even clash with each other. That’s followed by thinking about the implications of each scenario, imagining what may happen if a scenario comes to fruition and monitoring each scenario.
“One of those scenarios is going to be our actual future, and we’re going to be prepared for it because we thought about it ahead of time,” he said.
Howard also detailed parts of NIOSH’s Future of Work Initiative, which addresses topics such as robotics, artificial intelligence/machine learning, exoskeletons, organizational design, work arrangements, workforce skills gaps and what automation may do to some jobs.
Year of the Safety Hero
To thank safety pros for all of their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, NSC declared 2021 the Year of the Safety Hero.
“Safety professionals like you are helping essential workers stay safe and stay on the job,” NSC CEO and President Lorraine M. Martin said during the Opening Session. “You’ve stepped up to lead and serve others. You’ve faced a once-in-a-century pandemic with courage and dedication, confronting each challenge head on. Traditional safety risks never paused during this time and neither did you.
“It’s time to recognize the vital role that safety professionals play in every industry and every day.”
NSC is calling on people to recognize the safety hero in their lives on social media with the hashtag, #SafetyHero.