I am in New York City these days, and the “animal spirits” have been unleashed here due to the high level of vaccinations leading to low infection rates and thus increasingly high public confidence, coupled with the reopening of restaurants and sports and concert venues. However, along with this exuberance I see safety issues all around me, including people looking at cell phones while crossing the streets, and a growing number of electric delivery bikes and scooters going exceedingly fast. I think this combination of high spirits and increased risk is present in the workplace, too. I urge you to reinvigorate your safety program at this pivotal time.
Safety and health have been top of mind over the last year or so as everyone has been very focused on keeping healthy during the pandemic. As employees return to your offices, you may want to follow what I thought was a very reasonable policy from J.P. Morgan, which requires all United States workers to log their vaccination status into a software portal. They also urge all employees to be vaccinated. Those employees who are either not vaccinated or who choose not to log their status need to wear masks and socially distance. They are also encouraged to periodically test for COVID-19.
However, the overwhelming preoccupation with COVID does not diminish the continuing need for a robust and inclusive safety program. As employees return to work and operations ramp up, this is the time to ensure that your overall safety program is functioning well.
You may want to structure your thinking along the lines of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s seven core elements of an effective safety and health program, as I have done below.
This is the most important element. Management must ensure that safety is a value that is instilled in company culture. Some key ways to do this are to make sure that all communications from the CEO and functional leaders include comments on safety performance and that this carries through to investments in improving safety in company facilities. There must be safety goals and metrics in place and continuous improvement in evidence. Safety performance should be an element of manager performance evaluation and promotion requirements. Consider whether you have delivered mixed messages to employees during the pandemic, such as whether your actions could be construed as prioritizing profits, costs or production over safety.
Workers at all levels should have a voice and a role with regard to safety programs. There should be mechanisms by which they can voice concerns about safety without fear of reprisal, and management should provide feedback to workers on these issues. Safety committees should include colleagues at different levels, including union workers. Recognize that employees working from home during the pandemic have missed the opportunity to participate in such safety reinforcing activities as safety audits and “walkabouts” and in-person safety meetings. Seek opportunities to reinvigorate these safety activities.
Hazard Identification and Assessment
This is an area of prime concern due to the many changes that are likely to have occurred in your operations over the past year. Supply chain challenges have no doubt led to changes, like new suppliers for raw materials and different modes of transit and supply points, and perhaps not all of these were sufficiently assessed for risk. Plant operations have likely been strained by operations at both low and high capacity. New workers may have inadequate training or may not be sufficiently steeped in the corporate safety culture. Now is the time to take a fresh look at these changes and identify any new risks you may have taken on intentionally or inadvertently.
Hazard Prevention and Control
Review the new risks identified above and seek ways to remedy them, starting with the highest risks. Ensure that an up-to-date risk assessment is developed and that there is a high level of risk awareness at all management levels, including at the corporate level. There should be a plan to mitigate the highest risks over time. Perhaps during the pandemic you have been able to find new ways of working that reduce employee exposure to certain risks; be sure to incorporate these new ways of working into operating procedures.
Education and Training
You have likely relied on online training tools during the pandemic, and these certainly are efficient. However, I suggest that you test how well this training has been understood and absorbed. Look for more hands-on training opportunities, especially in plant settings. For employees who are returning to the office, restart programs aimed at awareness of such office safety issues as ergonomics, tripping hazards and driving safety. Consider setting up cross-functional sessions for all employees with less than two years of service to introduce them to a wider group of management and educate them in company culture, mission, strategy and objectives, including a strong message of safety culture.
Evaluation and Improvement
Review your safety performance before and during the pandemic and determine what the data are telling you. Perhaps your safety performance improved significantly due to fewer employees present on site. Perhaps your performance declined due to taking on more risks. Maybe the type of injuries and incidents changed significantly during the pandemic. In any case, this data should be evaluated and learnings should be taken from it. Now is the time to get back on your corporate journey to continuously improve safety. Be sure to incorporate insights from the pandemic into your safety, health and human resource policies.
Management of Contractors
Safety performance includes not only your own staff but also that of contractors. Perhaps during the pandemic you reduced or eliminated contract staffing but are now reinstating it as demand returns to normal. Consider carefully the quality of the organizations you are working with and ensure adequate training and supervision of new contract staff.
As life and business, thankfully, begin to return to normal, reinvigorate your safety program through management attention and communication, risk identification and mitigation, and increased activities, including safety audits, safety training and goal setting.
Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (908) 400-5210.