Posted: 28 May 2020 9 min. read

Workforce health and safety

Key considerations to navigate COVID-19 recovery

Effective navigation of the health and safety of employees, customers and suppliers is key to successfully returning to the workplace with confidence.

Health and safety teams will heavily feel the period from today to a point of operational confidence, and will need to continually wrestle with two key questions:

  1. Are we confident that our operations are not exposing people to an increased risk of COVID-19 infection, based on what we know today?
  2. Do we understand, and are we controlling, the impact on workplace health and safety risk while we operate under different conditions – such as reduced workforce and alternative practices?

Your organisation needs to articulate its own risk appetite and make every effort to eliminate risk using the hierarchy of controls. However, in many instances, it’s not possible to operate without some risk present. Leadership need to find a level they are comfortable with that allows them to take a measured and acceptable approach to reap the reward of a more prompt return to productivity. Resilient leadership to implement and communicate this message will be critical.

Return to the health and safety “new normal”

Incremental changes to restrictions will mean that lockdown will gradually lift around the world, and organisations will operate under exceptional and changing circumstances.

Decades of stable operation has led many organisations to develop granular rule-sets and expectations with regard to health and safety management; controls designed to keep their people and customers safe.

In many cases, however, these controls are not based on absolute external requirements, or indeed clearly linked to a reduction in risk exposure. While it might not be the right time to consider wholesale review of those requirements, those involved in the ‘recovery’ phase of your organisation’s response to COVID-19, need to be ready to challenge your health and safety beliefs.

Most organisations will need to accept a compromise on their pre-COVID-19 health and safety controls position. Accepting that, despite every effort to eliminate COVID-19 risk, without some tolerance, certain work cannot continue. Adding extra complexity to the situation; new requirements from regulators specific to COVID-19 controls in the workplace need to be layered on top of pre-existing health and safety regulations and guidance.

Five components for a sound approach to health and safety risk during COVID-19 recovery

1. A means of staying alert to external signals: Across your operational footprint, what guidance are regulators producing? What further guidance has come from the industry and what are your peers doing? Someone in your organisation should be charged with collating and regularly refreshing this information, layering on top pre-existing health and safety requirements to provide the “full picture”.

2. Develop a robust decision-making process: Ensure you have a clear methodology to support leadership in identifying and assessing the level of risk being taken, and the expected impact of any interim mitigation measures. Importantly, your decision-making process should be auditable and demonstrate the information available at the time key decisions were made. This will support you to defend your position with stakeholders and continue operations with confidence.

3. Rapid design of risk controls: Decisions on what, how and when to operate will generate the requirement for associated risk controls. A cross-discipline team should be convened to identify the outcome sought, coalesce on the level of risk involved, and to define (potentially innovative) controls that can be implemented in the shortest time possible.

4. Develop a high-cadence rollout cycle: Controls designed need to be cascaded throughout the organisation: communicate, implement and confirm-back. You might choose to prepare yourselves for frequent (such as weekly) changes to the action plan, with new, changed or withdrawn actions being communicated.

With this in mind, you should establish a programme management office to ensure there is a regular and rapid cadence to communication across the organisation. This will result in positive confirmation at the centre that you are implementing key health and safety risk controls.

5. Build capacity to escalate and address local challenges: Site-level variations or site-specific challenges, for example space for social distancing, may make it difficult to deploy certain controls, or present further weak-spots that you need to escalate to the central team. You should have suitably experienced resources at a local level to ensure that any such challenges are identified and escalated.

Health and safety needs a louder voice during the pandemic

Never has it been truer that health and safety is an enabling force; for some organisations their existence could hinge on taking a measured and practical approach.

Organisations that successfully navigate the recovery phase of their COVID-19 response will have acknowledged that some degree of risk needs to be present, while being confident they have made sound decisions to:

  • Reduce the risk of infection as far as is reasonable
  • Take further action to mitigate the consequential effects of reduced operating conditions on ‘normal’ health and safety risk topics.

When the business world reflects back on this period, our stories will be punctuated by examples of those brave first movers, who armed with the right information, had the confidence to take action. This applies both in the initial response and lockdown, and in moving to the recovery phase.

Download our guidance on COVID-19 health and safety recovery.

If you’d like to discuss your HSE approach to COVID-19 recovery, get in touch with Callum Irvine.

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