EHS Managers May Face This Overlooked COVID-19 Impact

Warehouse Workers
October 13, 2020

“It’s always been a matter of trust”
~Billy Joel

By now you heard many stories about how COVID-19 will change EHS management. If you haven’t, don’t worry. We will provide a summary. We will also talk about another impact that seems to be neglected, but that you should be aware of.

Before continuing, we should clarify that there are short-term and long-term impacts, and it’s important to distinguish between the two.

The turning point will probably be the availability of a vaccine, but here also a critical distinction must be made: The widespread distribution of a vaccine resulting in a significant proportion of the population having been vaccinated is what will contribute to a return to normal, not the successful development of the vaccine itself.

Some of the short-term impacts will eventually go away once things return to normal (e.g. working entirely from home, social distancing on the factory floor, plexiglass dividers, frequent shift changes to reduce exposure, etc.).

The long-term impacts that we can still expect as a result of COVID-19 include the following:

  • A greater emphasis on the “H” part of EHS, i.e. more importance given to occupational health, industrial hygiene, ergonomics, and wellness.
  • A need to better identify vulnerable members of the workforce to better protect them, by using such factors as age, obesity, health conditions (e.g. diabetes, asthma), medical history, etc.
  • More significance given to medical surveillance and the management of employee medical records, while ensuring data confidentiality, privacy and security in line with data protection regulations around the world.
  • The inclusion of new hygiene measures into work permits to adapt to new or changing conditions.
  • A greater use of wearables to track key health indicators in real-time and mobile apps for health self-assessments.

The list is not complete. I’m sure you’re aware of a few others.

We have a good idea of the impacts of COVID-19 on EHS managers. We may learn more in the upcoming months, but we already know a fair amount.

However, there is one impact that is not anticipated by many, and that is worth highlighting.

As we all know, there was an initial period of lockdowns in the spring, followed by a gradual re-opening and return to work in many parts of the world.

For the last few weeks, there has been again a rise in COVID-19 cases in some parts of the world. This is the situation we might be in until things return to normal, with cases going up and down, again and again.

Also, there have been many stories of employers failing to adequately protect workers (e.g. meatpacking plants). Either workplaces re-opened too pre-maturely, or proper controls were not implemented.

If you’re an EHS manager, this is certainly not your fault. Sometimes executives make decisions that prioritize profits and production over health and safety, despite their rhetoric.

Similarly, you’re not responsible for the fact that we’re living through the type of event that takes place once in a century.

But you are the person responsible for keeping workers healthy and safe. And you’re probably already doing a good job at making sure that health and safety are prioritized, and that proper measures are put in place.

But employees may feel that their health and safety are not being prioritized enough by their employer. This is why, as an EHS manager, you have to ensure that you keep the trust of employees that you earned over the years.

In June, more than 3,900 workers and business leaders were surveyed in 11 countries, including the United States, Canada and Mexico – about attitudes around trust in the workplace, digital transformation and crisis response/management during the pandemic.

A third of respondents said they trust their employer more now than they did before the pandemic because of how their organization has reacted. But 36% said they wish their workplace had closed faster and safety measures for essential workers were implemented sooner.

Clearly some employees are concerned about their employer’s commitment to health and safety,

Maintaining trust is essential to keep employees engaged and foster a positive safety culture.

It is also needed to make sure that workers continue to participate wholeheartedly in safety initiatives, such as:

  • Reporting observations of unsafe or at-risk conditions
  • Reporting hazards, incidents and near misses
  • Adopting the right workplace behaviors, and encouraging others to do so
  • Participating in training
  • Performing on-the-spot inspections before using equipment

As we navigate through the pandemic, pay attention to the trust factor. It could very well be that in your particular case, workers still have a high confidence in you. But don’t take anything for granted.

Be sure to constantly communicate with workers to prevent any potential erosion of trust that may have resulted from your employer’s response to COVID-19. And as always, remember that actions speak louder than words.

COVID-19 Protect & Respond

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Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

Content Thought Leader - Wolters Kluwer | Enablon