Culture Is the Key to Safely Getting Back to Business
We all have seen the recommendations for operating businesses safely in the wake of COVID-19. Temperature checks and masks, workplaces reconfigured with greater distance and barriers between employees, doors without handles, and single-serve coffee makers in breakrooms are just a few pragmatic examples. But those are all physical measures.
Organizations also need to address the behavioral patterns that can undermine COVID-19 prevention and mitigation. Otherwise, they will remain vulnerable to outbreaks, opening themselves to legal liability and operational risk.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is complacency. Because the Coronavirus is no longer new, some people start taking bigger risks. Unfortunately, this has already led to spikes in COVID-19 infections. Another factor is employees’ fear that they will lose wages—or worse, their jobs—because they test positive for the virus. Finally, outdated information can lead to gaps in prevention, as well as hinder responsiveness if an infected employee comes to work.
For these reasons, creating a culture of safety is critical to protecting employees against COVID-19. Let’s look at management best practices in four key areas for building this culture: communications, collaboration, trust, and responsiveness.
Because long-term exposure to any potential risk leads to complacency, organizations need to go beyond one-time training and instead provide regular updates. In high-risk industries, such as construction and oil and gas, businesses regularly conduct safety talks that have shown to reduce the rate of injury. These “talks” may be in-person, or they may be Web-based training that requires employees to sign off when they have completed it.
Businesses across all sectors can apply a similar safety talk strategy to educate or refresh employees on COVID-19 prevention and mitigation. These types of regular training sessions are most effective when employees can learn something new. For example, one talk might share the results of a study by Florida Atlantic University comparing the effectiveness of different masks. They also need to strike a balance between being frequent enough to keep the information top of mind but not so often that they are ignored. For COVID-19 best practices, monthly talks should be effective unless an immediate update is required.
Collaboration is fundamental to fostering a culture of safety, since culture tends to be influenced from the bottom up, not the top down. One way to facilitate collaboration is by creating a COVID-19 safety committee with employees from all levels and job descriptions coming together in a respectful environment. This ensures that prevention and mitigation policies and processes reflect the needs and concerns of workers across the business.
Additionally, employee self-assessment is proving to be one of the most effective COVID-19 mitigation strategies an organization can employ. Some companies now are asking employees to answer a few questions based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If their answers suggest exposure to COVID-19, they can be directed to a testing facility and then self-quarantine, minimizing the risk to coworkers. The most effective self-assessment tools let employees answer the questions from their mobile phones—before they get to work.
Self-assessments also provide another opportunity to educate employees. Not only does answering the questions remind them of COVID-19 risks, it also serves to update them as the scientific community learns more. For instance, the list of known COVID-19 symptoms has nearly doubled since the first guidance was provided in first quarter 2020.
Collaboration doesn’t work unless businesses establish a sense of safety and trust. Employees who fear lost wages may hesitate to report symptoms or potential contact in their self-assessments. Worse, they may decide to “tough it out” and come to work because their symptoms are relatively mild—setting the stage for an outbreak.
Businesses can mitigate fears and create psychological safety with policies that offer paid leave for employees who need to quarantine and can’t work from home. Educating workers on these policies is important, since it eliminates uncertainty. Additionally organizations can use communications to recognize that workers with confirmed or potential infections are heroes for protecting their colleagues.
How quickly a company responds to COVID-19 exposure can impact not only workers’ health but also the risk of liability and the ability to continue operating. Responding may be easy when an organization first establishes COVID-19 mitigation policies, and they are fresh. The challenge is remembering all the details two or three months later. Moreover, organizations need to comply with continually evolving COVID-19-related policies and regulations at the national, state, and local level.
Environment, health, and safety (EHS) software platforms can facilitate an organization’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts by providing reminders on corrective actions and risk reduction. Additionally, some EHS software solutions have incorporated different COVID-19-related government mandates, eliminating the need for businesses to make manual updates. Finally, by running a mock COVID-19 exposure response monthly, management teams will have the skills to act quickly if the need arises.
By putting into place processes for responsiveness, as well as communications, collaboration, and trust, companies will be well-positioned to create a culture of safety that ensures the health of employees and the business, alike.
Ryan Quiring is founder and CEO of SafetyTek Software. He brings more than a decade of experience as a senior automation consultant and functional safety engineer working on massive capital projects globally in the scope of process automation.