COVID-19 has created specific challenges for safety managers. There’s been plenty written and talked about regarding challenges to businesses and employees, but little about the challenges for professionals in organisations responsible for the health and safety. A recent survey conducted by the Australian Industry Group in April 2020 found that 38% of HR and OHS professionals are severely overloaded.
So it is with interest that some preliminary findings on a study underway at Griffith University identify four challenges for safety managers as a result of COVID-19. For this article, we discuss these findings and provide tips to overcome some of the challenges for safety managers that COVID-19 is creating.
How Can We Safely Implement Restrictions on the Front Line?
One of the first challenges for safety managers is keeping up with the COVID-19 restrictions that frequently change.
When an organisation develops a virus response plan or strategy, they often find it difficult to ensure that it is practical and doesn’t open up challenges or frustrations among frontline workers at the sharp end of operations.
Social distancing restrictions (or physical distancing as it’s is now termed in Western Australia), are changing as we move to live with COVID-19. At the outset of the crisis, organisations should have prepared a COVID-19 Response Plan to guide their workplace on what to do to prevent the spread of coronavirus and if an employee develops any symptoms. The COVID-19 Response Plan initially involved closing workplaces to all non-essential staff and visitors and setting up as many as possible to work from home.
However, as we make our way back to the office, workspaces need to be adapted to accommodate for more distance between team members. If you are working in a shared office or gathering in a meeting room, you must have 2 metres apart from others in all directions. For example, if the work area you are in is 100 square metres (10m x 10m), you can only have 25 people in that room.
Then there is the difficulty of travelling to work and issues such as public transport physical distancing and touching shared surfaces. If you work in a high-rise building, there is the issue with the restricted numbers of people using the lifts and stairs at the same time. Staggering start and finish times and rolling 7-day week rosters can help but are limited. Therefore, many employees are continuing to work from home. The changing restrictions mean that physical working requirements and travel must be regularly revised to develop practical and workable solutions.
See our article, COVID-19: My Workplace is Sorted. Now What?
Are We Creating New Risks When We Introduce COVID-19 Responses?
Safety managers are concerned about the effects of COVID-19 restrictions on risks like fatigue, and the psychological impacts on mental health due to extended periods away from family and friends.
The rising curve is the wellness side of things, whether it’s people working from home, or whether it’s people’s family members, or whether it’s people concerned about their jobs.
With safety managers time stretched to breaking point, keeping up with changes and having to manage their employees from a distance, COVID-19 may be diverting resources away from ‘business as usual’ safety activities. The lack of focus concerns safety managers because of the looming risk faced by deteriorating risk controls over time. Anything that is not COVID-19 related is likely to be placed on the back burner.
The challenges for safety manager is how to keep their workplaces safe if restrictions remain in place for a long time. Until we can develop a COVID-19 vaccination, physical distancing restrictions are likely to stay until at least 2021.
If safety managers drop the ball and have a rise in physical and psychological injuries during the pandemic, there are likely to be some serious ramifications.
- Health and safety regulators may prosecute organisations and their leaders for criminal offences under health and safety law
- There may be claims for compensation in the context of the health and safety laws’ victimisation provisions
- Workers compensation claims for psychological injury
- Adverse action and general protection claims under the industrial relations regime.
Any of the above may trigger notifications to and investigations by relevant professional industry bodies that may lead to class actions and other actions in tort.
See our article, COVID-19 Psychological Health Legal Implications.
COVID-19 Restrictions Little Time For Consultation With Stakeholders
The third issue that creates challenges for safety managers is coordinating and consulting with multiple stakeholders. Because they have to make decisions on the fly, there is little time for consultation, which is a requirement under the Work, Health & Safety Act (2011). Also, for organisations that work with multiple subcontractors, decisions made at the top may have unintended consequences for them, creating a ripple effect.
As a contractor, the guys are feeling almost like they work all day and then they’re going back to a prison. They’re not allowed to mingle with other crew members.
The impact on mental health for all is being felt by many. It’s time for a re-think of how you manage your employee’s psychological health and meet your duty of care obligations. Training on mental health topics that provide information about what to do and how to increase their resilience is a positive step forward to support your employees in this challenging time.
The Tap into Safety online and mobile-friendly platform has comprehensive mental health training using micro-learning to teach coping strategies and encourage help-seeking. Examples of modules that help reduce stress and educate on the signs and symptoms of declining mental health include:
- Helping Employees with Mental Health Concerns
- Depressive Thoughts and Alcohol Use
- Working from Home
- Managing Your Employees
- Signs of Declining Mental Health in Employees
- Fear of Job Loss
- Fatigue Management
- Gambling Addiction
Safety Managers Are Feeling Disempowered and Less Effective
With travel restrictions in place and many safety managers working from home, there is less connection and consultation with employees. One of the challenges for safety managers is continuing to develop open and consultative relationships with the workers on the shop floor.
A great safety manager recognises their role in having a physical presence onsite. He or she realises that the key to safety is good quality relationships with workers, asking them for their feedback, their frustrations about work, and what challenges they are facing.
Under Australian health and safety laws, organisations are subject to a primary duty of care that requires them to ensure the health and safety of workers so far as is reasonably practicable. Part of this duty is to provide and maintain safe systems of work and safe working environments. One of the other challenges for safety managers is overseeing employees who are also working from home. The duties apply wherever a worker goes while at work and are not limited to the traditional workplace setting. That means their home office is now considered an extension of your workplace.
See our article, COVID-19: Reduce Your Employee’s Anxiety.
Strategies You Can Use During the Pandemic
Learning from the safety managers interviewed in the study, we can see several strategies that they are using to overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 restrictions.
First, they are actively working on the transparency and frequency of their communication and updating their workers with information as soon as it comes to hand.
Second, they are adapting the normal system of work to suit the changing COVID-19 conditions and embedding conversations about safety and wellbeing into their organisation’s culture.
Third, they are developing a relationship-focused leadership style that emphasises the human struggles and concerns raised by workers to build team bonds and a sense of togetherness.
Finally, they are providing reassurances and negotiated arrangements with workers to increase job security and reduce distraction, thereby ensuring continued productivity.
See our article, COVID-19: Settling into the New Normal at Work.