The future of safety
How will the COVID-19 pandemic change the field of occupational safety and health?
Safety+Health gathered perspectives from prominent voices in safety on the question: Do you believe the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on occupational safety and health and, if so, how?
Browse their responses on the following pages by selecting a photo below or by using the navigation arrows at the top of each page.
Lorraine M. MartinPresident and CEO
National Safety Council
We’ve seen COVID-19 change the safety world already. But, how much of that change will be permanent and long term, and what “silver linings” do we want to make sure we hold on to as we navigate the future?
For example, many employees have been working from home while many are still working in their traditional work environments – but those environments have changed. We’ve needed to maintain the right procedures and practices while they’re in that modified work environment, and we’ll need to keep referencing learnings post-quarantine.
Additionally, safety professionals have always recommended that there be task forces or disaster preparedness plans in place for all organizations. Before this, how many considered those plans and task forces “nice to have” rather than essential? If you don’t have one right now around COVID-19, it’s really important that you form one.
American Society of Safety Professionals
COVID-19 will change occupational safety and health in a variety of ways. When politicians, advertisers, journalists and public health officials are talking about safety on a daily basis, how can it not change? Organizations will be more focused on safety and health and remain more aware of the need to prepare for emergencies – not just weather-related incidents.
Companies will better recognize the need to provide a safe work environment – not just for their employees, but for visitors and customers. Everyone will be more aware of personal protective equipment and physical barriers as protections. While individuals will be more accepting of the use of PPE, we can’t allow it to become the “go-to” control for workplace hazards.
During the pandemic, organizations have had to conduct risk assessments versus relying on regulatory guidance, and that has resulted in cross-department collaboration. This teamwork will lead to better decision-making moving forward in our new normal. It also provides safety professionals with the opportunity to show how they understand the overall business risks to help their organization be more efficient and productive.
How we train individuals and conduct meetings has also changed. COVID-19 has caused us to be more purposeful and not rely on how we have done things in the past.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role of workplace safety and health – not just in health care but in industries across America. Workers are the backbone of our nation that keep us moving ahead even in the face of unprecedented threats, such as the one we face today. The importance of taking proactive steps to ensure they have the safety equipment and the training they need to perform work safely and remain healthy is clearer than ever. NIOSH is dedicated to providing recommendations that further prevent, protect and safeguard all workers from injuries, illnesses and fatalities.
American Industrial Hygiene Association
Now, words such as “PPE” and “N95” are mentioned every day across mass media and are even becoming part of household vernacular. Even the Hierarchy of Controls, which underscores the practice of occupational health and safety, is being referenced regularly. As businesses reopen across America, greater attention must be placed on worker health (both in and outside the workplace). We feel that the need for occupational health and safety consultation has never been more critically needed; the value of our profession is being amplified as we navigate these challenging times.
Chris CainExecutive director
CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training
The pandemic is causing every OSH practitioner in the construction industry to focus on protecting worker health. While our industry tends to focus on PPE first, the Hierarchy of Controls is gaining traction, and engineering and administrative controls not seen on worksites previously are becoming the norm. Because we expect this hazard to be around for a long time, I believe an emphasis on health will continue. This increased attention also gives OSH practitioners more visibility within their companies, elevating the importance of the field.
OSH practitioners should take the opportunity to ensure that not only controls for COVID-19 are in place, but also persistent hazards like falls and silica are controlled. In addition, because industry and workplace hazards and stressors impact workers’ overall health and well-being, practitioners need to consider psychosocial and mental health risks and learn how to address them by identifying and helping management control these risks.
The pandemic is already creating permanent shifts in OSH training. Innovative methods of online learning, which were evolving pre-pandemic, are now rapidly being adopted. They will continue to grow with new technologies, likely becoming standard practice if shown to be effective.
Edwin Foulke Jr.Attorney and former OSHA administrator
One thing that has happened – and something I’ve been preaching to the choir for a long time about – is getting the safety professionals before the C-suite. Because of this, there have been a lot more CEOs, company presidents, COOs and CFOs … looking toward the safety profession for answers on how to safely protect the employees. That’s been a positive thing that has occurred. There’s much more visibility of the safety profession to the C-suite people. Is that going to translate to the long term? I’m hoping it will. [Companies] won’t be saying, “Well this is over, now we can forget about it.” I think you’re going to see companies allocating resources through the safety department to ensure they’re never caught flat-footed again.
In the future, there’s going to be much more focus on handling any type of event like [the one] we’ve just gone through, even if it’s not a pandemic. The safety professionals in a company will be the ones charged to do that, and they should be trying to lead. I’ve always said that one of the failings we’ve had as a safety profession is that we have not gotten into the C-suite and we’ve not been able to articulate how a safety program is actually saving a company money and protecting employees. Now we’ve had the opportunity to get our foot in the door. I’m hoping we can articulate how things they are doing are impacting the bottom line.
One of the things the pandemic has laid bare is the problem with the supply chain. The safety profession should step up and be involved in ensuring the company’s vendors and suppliers have safety programs in place that will ensure they’ll be able to supply them if we have anything like this again.
Todd SchlekewayPresident and CEO
NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association
Time will ultimately tell, but in our industry, the COVID-19 pandemic could have a lasting impact on areas such as company policies related to employee/tower crew travel, sanitizing/disinfecting PPE equipment, additional pandemic-related training requirements, using/leveraging technology for company safety tailgate meetings/training sessions, and enhancing the use of commercial drones into tower site activities.
Don MartinSenior vice president
The COVID-19 pandemic has put the safety and health profession in the spotlight in a way that I have not seen in several generations. It’s important for us as safety professionals to recognize that we now have a role that transcends routine industrial workplace safety. I can think of several times when there was the threat of a pandemic on the horizon, but those never really entered the workplace to the degree that COVID-19 has. This redefines the scope of what we do.
I see three ways our role will change in coming years. First, we will be asked to pay more attention to critical data and think through implications on safety and health. How we assess data will determine the scope and timing of interventions. Secondly, personal hygiene and area disinfection practices will become a greater part of our role; we will be called on to provide guidance and procedures to verify these practices are performed properly. Finally, we will be compelled to ensure our companies are prepared for health emergencies through plans that are cohesive, thorough and current. We’ll need to serve as guardians of these plans and always keep them on the radar of the executives we serve.
Shawn M. GallowayPresident
ProAct Safety Inc.
Yes, in three areas. First, the H (Health) in EHS, with the exception of sponsoring wellness programs or paying for gym memberships, had largely been an afterthought. The average EHS professional, depending on their background or company priority, spent the majority of their time on either safety or environmental first. Health took center stage during the first months of the pandemic, led by many leaders without the skills or confidence to be successful. There will be a recognized need to equip EHS leaders or teams with competency in all three areas.
Second, with the media-driven temporary focus for the prevention of COVID-19 across communities and worksites being largely behavioral, this will carry over to a new or revived appreciation for behavioral safety. While maybe not overt, there will be a rise in the discussions on precautions that prevent many types of incidents, illnesses or injuries.
Third is involvement in business continuity planning. While many EHS professionals fought for their seat at the table, they were not viewed as strategic leaders: more as taskmasters or program administrators. With the need to meet the CDC’s recommendations for businesses and to remain viable and avoid bankruptcy, the EHS leader was thrust into collaborative discussion with operations on how to safely stay open, or shut down and then slowly return to normal operations. Strategy is about creating and delivering sustainable value. EHS leaders who took charge and thought strategically were seen as strategic contributors and advisors. There will be an increase in the recognition that EHS needs a company-specific strategy aligned with operations that is predictive, resilient and agile. For this, the most important lasting change is the identified need for strategic-thinking EHS professionals.
While it’s hard to see otherwise, I think it will have an impact in the short and medium term, but not a lasting one. Short to medium term, the impact will be economics – where companies had significant profit margins in the past, the expenditure on safety and health was liberal and we were able to do sophisticated things, such as introducing expensive technology, culture analyses, systems automations, etc. It will be a “back to more basic” safety; stronger focus on compliance, sorry to say, a more regressive focus on safety and much more focus on health.
In the long term, economic balances will be redressed, and then the human need to interact and affiliate will overpower the fear of pandemic threats, and we will drift back to “normal.”
David BidermanExecutive director and CEO
Solid Waste Association of North America
In the solid waste industry, when people talk about occupational health and safety, the focus has always been on safety – it’s always been on avoiding collisions, back injuries. It’s been on the injury side of the equation, not the illness side of the equation. And I suspect that one of the byproducts of the coronavirus pandemic is going to be increased attention to the health side of the equation, which I think had sometimes been overlooked.
Tim Page-BottorffSenior safety consultant
I think we’re going to be busier. I think we’re going to have better focus. I think the Earth is going to be better, and overall the workers are going to have a safer and healthier environment to work in.
… I just can’t see any negatives right now. And that puts me at a different perspective, because I’m sure there are workers out there that are just wondering what’s going to happen to their future. Are they going to be able to make rent? And I can feel that, because I’ve had to suffer through that before. But right now, I’m busy, and everybody that I’m talking to, they’re busy, and some people are saying they’re busier than they ever thought they would be.
International Safety Equipment Association
As manufacturers and suppliers of PPE work overtime to meet demand, they also are coming to terms with what “new normal” in occupational safety looks like. We’ll likely see updates to product standards, new workplace protection requirements and guidance, federal policy enhancements, and strategic undertakings by the PPE industry and governments to increase preparedness efforts. In a new world where PPE is a common household term, the industry has a much larger audience to address and protect.
Carl HeinleinSenior safety consultant
American Contractors Insurance Group
I do think it will have, hopefully, a positive impact on our profession. Why I say that is I as we go through this pandemic together, I’ve watched a number of my colleagues – both seasoned and new to the profession – really stepping to the front of organizations, providing their C-suites, boards and leadership teams with clear and concise answers for moving forward. Opening their businesses, continuing to work. Not only on the jobs but preparing for jobs, reopening them, but also trying to educate their fellow employees about being safe and healthful at home, as well. So I think there’s a number of things that I’ve seen, and that’s a great deal of collaboration, … a great deal of opportunity for all safety and health professionals to really show their true stripes, leadership, being resourceful, helping share their communications, their experience.
And then also with this pandemic, which is always something that we love to say we all have the answers, I think honesty is the key. It’s tough to say the word “no” or “I don’t know,” but I’m watching a lot of folks out there saying, “I don’t know, and we may not know, but here’s our best thought on how to address this.” I don’t think anyone has all the answers, but it’s great to see the safety and health professionals really working collaboratively … and I think it will continue.
So as we look into the future, I see this continued collaboration. I think there’s going to be processes and procedures that we have discovered along the way and they will be maintained for not only the short haul, but I think for the long term. And I think that the speed of learning has been tremendously impressive on the really unprecedented issues that we’re dealing with.
In a terrible pandemic, I think the opportunities that have presented themselves to my fellow professionals have been a great challenge, but also a great opportunity. And I’m really proud to see that my profession is really stepping up to try to really help organizations get back up and running, not only safely but productively, and putting out a quality product, so it all goes hand in hand.”
John NewquistFormer OSHA area director
I think the virus will be around for a few months until a vaccine will be developed. Safety professionals will have to lead in setting up guidelines using OSHA/CDC guidelines for the facilities. This will require barriers if people cannot do social distancing. A good PPE analysis should identify areas with congestion and the proper PPE for workers. Companies are relying on the safety professionals to develop a plan that lets the workers be protected and the company remain open. Training will be online or in a classroom with social distancing. Internet training has to push beyond clicking on a PowerPoint. Interaction, live demos and knowledge checks will have to be incorporated into future training sessions. Auditing will have to change, as the safety professions will be wearing face covering, gloves and eye protection.
The Learning Factory Inc.
The COVID-19 response has grown the safety and health industry’s capabilities, leadership opportunities and voice, and now is the time to seal that impact with the C-Suite and our stakeholders. We must take our lessons learned and loud voices of leadership to be part of all future decision-making. The skills and leadership the safety professional has shown during the pandemic response must be seen as the new normal for our presence and input into total worker safety. To ensure lasting impact we must stay diligent, visible and lead with a renewed intention.