(Back to) The future of safety

Following up on last year’s predictions

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What lessons have been learned?

Last year, I advised on three areas: 1. A greater focus on health initiatives led by EHS departments, 2. A renewed appreciation of the focus on behaviors, 3. EHS involvement in setting strategy. I stand by these, with evidence and some new thoughts.

Health: As a trusted advisor to executives developing their long-term EHS plans, I am privy to all initiatives proposed, and ultimately chosen, to shape EHS performance. There has been a marked increase in tactics to address the “whole person,” including psychological safety, mental health and better nutrition for the workforce.

Behaviors: With the new variants prompting countries and companies to return to restrictions, a continued focus is placed on the individual and what they can do to contribute to prevent the spread of the virus. This is, however, thrusting leaders into better understanding what triggers people to support or resist change, what influences behavior, and the powerful force of cultures. We tend to respond emotionally to change prior to responding logically. Additionally, with the confusing communication and multiple turnabouts on recommendations by the CDC and policymakers, the misunderstanding and some degree of resistance should have been expected. Leaders paying attention to all of this will be better prepared for future change or attempts to influence behavior within their own cultures.

Strategy: With the need to respond to business continuity issues, and the necessity to involve EHS professionals in the plans, many corporate executives have experienced an important epiphany. They knew they couldn’t just develop some buzzwords, delegate responsibility to the EHS leader, throw programs at problems, ignore existing culture, encourage people to fail less, and have the issues go away. Savvy executives realized that is precisely how their EHS strategy was set up. This is and will continue to be a priority for companies to have confidence in the antifragility of their EHS strategy. I echo what I closed with last year, that “the most important lasting change is the identified need for strategic-thinking EHS professionals.” This year, I’ll finish that sentence with, “to create value for the whole person, whether they support it or not.”

– Shawn M. Galloway, CEO, ProAct Safety Inc.

From a health and safety perspective, the industry has learned the importance of reducing employees’ exposure to both other workers and customers, to protect their employees’ health. While the traditional safety focus in the solid waste industry has been on preventing injuries and accidents, the pandemic has forced us to expand our thinking and also focus on preventing a highly contagious virus from spreading from one employee to another.

– David Biderman, Executive Director and CEO, Solid Waste Association of North America

I’m a little bit worried if we’re ever going to get out of this (pandemic). Are we going to be continually doing this? I think with barriers and masks, more of that stuff is going to be in place than it was at the time the pandemic hit. All these hospitals now have more ventilators than they did. I doubt they’ll get rid of them. You never know when you may need them again. Being able to ramp up (when the pandemic hit) took us a little while. It’s kind of like in World War II. When the war started, we had very little armament business in place. Then all these companies switched over and started doing all kinds of stuff. The same thing happened during the pandemic. Companies started innovating and saying, “We can make those ventilators. We can make faceshields.” In that respect, we’ll be able to go faster and move quicker.

We’ve learned more from a health care perspective about putting things together like testing. Now they know, “Here’s where we can put testing sites. Here’s how we put up temporary hospitals if we need to quickly.” I don’t think that’s going to be lost. I hope not, anyway.

– Edwin Foulke Jr., Attorney and Former OSHA Administrator

Transparency, trust and leadership are important. Regardless of your political lean, you will always see things filter back to politics. In the safety business, there is no room for politics. Survey, assess and communicate more. Communicate clearly, take a stance and lead. These are lessons learned from this pandemic, as a majority of businesses that have thrived through the pandemic clearly took a lead and communicated their requirements through a transparent lens.

– Tim Page-Bottorff, Senior Safety Consultant, SafeStart

There are three things we noticed resulting from COVID.

First is the pace at which organizational culture has evolved (or devolved) within an organization. Some organizations say how “behaving badly is ignored and tolerated.” Other leaders have learned the hard way that it isn’t about safety culture, it is about workplace culture itself. Other organizations have remained steadfast on staying on the course to achieve a strong culture. This rapid change has put a considerable focus on total employee well-being. It has shown how crucial leadership is in a period of chaos and that failing to invest in their leaders is a costly mistake.

Second, organizations have dealt with this pandemic either tactically or strategically. Those that saw the pandemic as a tactical problem and secured PPE, tested equipment, etc., are now struggling in their response to the delta variant. These organizations didn’t learn, they reacted. Organizations that responded strategically are much better prepared to engage employees in a conversation about continued diligence that is necessary to control the exposure.

Finally, we have learned that we must navigate the politicized nature of this pandemic. As safety leaders, we absolutely can have political views. But in the area of controlling exposure of self and others, we have to move beyond our personal political beliefs and align our communication and exposure control systems to the science.

Anyone who has tried to implement a change in PPE policy knows that resistance to controlling exposure is not new. We convince people all the time about the need for control based on data and facts. Yet, COVID is considered different because of the politics associated with it.

A pandemic isn’t political. Organizations that are mature in safety recognize that COVID is a different exposure control challenge. What is different is that this particular exposure requires a more dynamic intervention and a more robust change management plan.

– Don Groover, General Manager, DEKRA North America

As I noted last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role of workplace safety and health – not just in health care but in industries across America. We are still in this pandemic and continue to work to provide recommendations that further prevent, protect and safeguard all workers from injuries, illnesses and fatalities – including COVID-19. It is too early to tell what exactly the future holds, but certainly we have seen the importance of taking proactive steps to ensure workers have the safety equipment and the training they need to perform work safely and remain healthy.

– John Howard, Director, NIOSH

I think first and foremost is you’ve got to take it serious. Second is there’s a lot of noise out there. Go with your trusted resource. I think as we go into the variant stage now, and with booster shots, is each individual has, certainly, their choice on what they want to do for their own family and personal situation, but really, clarity of information is key. I go back to what we try to do is really three Cs: Communication, the content and consistent with that, as well. I think last year, we learned a lot of lessons, and it seemed like we were all learning. It changed every other day. And we’re watching it change as we sit here on the call today, on masks, no masks, vaccine, mask. What are you going to do? So I think that some of the things that we’re certainly going to learn as we go into this next stage of the variant is you’re really just going to have to work with your medical provider to find out what works best for you. Certainly in my case for construction, our hand is going to be forced a little bit by some of the owners who we work for, say a hospital setting or something like that. You’re just not going to be able to get on a project without being vaccinated. So that is coming. I think that that is certainly an area that as we go through the process, you’re going to see a great deal more owners go to that. Proof is in the pudding, you know. You’ve got to show a card. You’ve got to show a vaccine card. And I’m sure soon, it’ll have another little line about a booster, too.

– Carl Heinlein, Senior Safety Consultant, American Contractors Insurance Group

It may sound funny, but washing and/or sanitizing your hands. We were all most likely taught to wash our hands after using the restroom, but now that task has escalated to a whole new level. We are transferring into a society that has transformed us into clean freaks when it comes to our hands. During the heights of the pandemic, the fist bump or elbow bump took the place of the ever-common handshake as a means of greeting someone or closing a deal. As our COVID numbers improved, we saw the reemergence of the handshake. I’m not totally comfortable with it if someone else leads with it, but I don’t shun it either. Now, I will shake someone’s hand, but I’m sanitizing my hands immediately afterward. In the industries I have been in since April 2020, I have found it more common to find a hand sanitizing station than an eyewash station.

– Jack Jackson, Senior Safety Consultant. SafeStart

Many predictions we saw at the start of the pandemic about occupational safety have come to pass, including a growing user base for and awareness of safety equipment. For example, the expanded field of health is now using NIOSH-approved respirators, and there is an increased awareness of personal safety and hygiene in more general occupations, including the equipment that can be used to advance it.

One thing is for certain: While COVID has fundamentally changed safety in the workplace, people have and will continue to go back to work. To ensure workers are protected as they face new safety challenges, the safety equipment industry has stepped up to provide the PPE needed in this new environment. It is also certain we’ll face future emergencies, whether they be a pandemic or otherwise. And, while we can’t predict them, we can prepare for them. To do so, we need to inform and advance the policies that will keep us safe when these emergencies happen.

– Charles Johnson, President and CEO, International Safety Equipment Association

To me, the biggest lesson is one I hope the world doesn’t forget: safety isn’t proprietary.

Nothing brings people together like working for a common cause, like when lives are at stake. This powerful understanding is what led NSC to create Safe Actions For Employee Returns (SAFER) earlier in the pandemic. We tapped into the expertise of everyone from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses, leading safety organizations and public health and government experts. Everyone leaned in to help and share freely. This is precisely the kind of “radical collaboration” I hope to see more of going forward – and which NSC will help lead.

– Lorraine M. Martin, President and CEO, National Safety Council

I think many facilities will have two to three months of PPE and cleaning supplies in storage. The shortages caught many people unaware. The key lesson that was learned was that masks can reduce the spread. Companies may not wait for the government to tell them they need masks to wear. They may implement these measures before the mandate is imposed. Most companies implemented screening measures. In the next pandemic, these screening tools will be implemented sooner as the signs, symptoms and transmission routes of the virus are known. Companies are more tolerant of having a sick worker stay home now. Remote work can be a simpler transition now for those who are potentially infectious.

– John Newquist, Former OSHA Area Director

We will likely have another pandemic in our lifetime. The World Health Organization feels the “big one” is still to come. So, we need to use what we have learned from COVID-19 so far to prepare workplaces for the future. To do that, we should consider stages of response for a new pandemic, document actions from COVID-19 to inform future response, formalize roles in pandemic planning, address supply chain gaps and, finally, support enhanced public health infrastructure so that employers are provided with timely and accurate data and information to make decisions for the workplace.

– Deborah Roy, Immediate Past ASSP President (2020-2021 term ended June 30)

The communications infrastructure contractor companies that make up a majority of NATE’s membership have adapted well to the fluid landscape surrounding COVID-19. As an industry whose companies and technician workforce have been designated as essential by the Department of Homeland Security, the deployment activities at tower and small cell sites across the country continue to move forward unabated. Looking ahead, companies need to continue to monitor specific COVID-19 guidance set forth by OSHA and state and local governments. Companies also will need to remain vigilant and flexible when it comes to their HR policies in respect to employees and COVID-19.

– Todd Schlekeway, President and CEO, NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association

We have learned so much over the past year, and as the science related to COVID-19 begins to evolve, so does what OEHS professionals do to educate the public about staying healthy against the variants. Risk mitigation, layered approach and Hierarchy of Controls are terms that were once only heard or read in workplace safety reports, but they are now part of common lexicon. AIHA hopes that with the “Back to Work Safely” documents we have produced and the new educational materials we will be releasing in the coming months, employers will have even more tools at their fingertips to keep their workforce healthy and safe.

– Lawrence “Larry” Sloan, CEO, American Industrial Hygiene Association

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