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Strong focus on health, safety will move us forward in 2021

While the pandemic will eventually end, the lessons learned will live on


COVID-19 has shifted the world of workplace safety in profound ways. (triloks/E+/Getty Images)
This column was originally published by OHS Canada.

On March 11 of last year, occupational health and safety suddenly became a hot topic in every business when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic. Many organizations, including our own, had to scramble to understand the risks and adapt. 

In 2021, employers will continue to pivot to address new information and changing restrictions to keep workers safe and operations running.

While we see light at the end of the tunnel with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, it shouldn’t shift focus away from workplace health and safety.

Beyond critical front-line medical workers, Canadians have been introduced to the important roles other essential workers play in sustaining our economy and supply chain — from grocery store workers and infrastructure employees to production staff manufacturing crucial goods such as food, medicine and toilet paper.

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As we rethink our assumptions around offshore production and supply, the health and safety of our essential workforce has become an important ongoing consideration — not only in caring for our people, but in ensuring our economic sustainability.

So, whats changed?

COVID-19 has shifted the world of workplace safety in profound ways. The focus on employee safety will continue to grow as global regulations change in response to the evolving pandemic.

Cases are still on the rise in many parts of Canada, and companies must stay alert to prevent outbreaks. Even with the rollout of a vaccine, the return to “normal” will take time.

The pandemic has many organizations questioning long-standing norms about the way we work and how we safeguard and care for the health and well-being of staff.

Health as a corporate priority

One of the greatest impacts for OH&S as a result of COVID-19 has been a new emphasis on the health in health and safety.

In manufacturing and other sectors, employers have had to address the very real issue of communicable disease prevention in the workplace beyond annual flu shot campaigns.

The pandemic has also highlighted the responsibility companies have to protect the mental health and wellness of workers.

There is a growing need to provide supports that address the impact of fear and anxiety on workers’ ability to report to work or focus on the job.

We have also seen a shift away from detection towards prevention in health and safety efforts. The potential impact of an outbreak in the plant created new urgency for employers to identify and address hazards before someone is injured or made ill.

Developing COVID-19 safety plans to comply with provincial requirements necessitated getting back to basics to re-evaluate everyday tasks for risks and hazards.

While the pandemic will eventually end, the lessons learned will live on. A continued focus on exposure control plans and the prevention of workplace infections will have benefits for industry well beyond COVID-19.

Effect on retention, recruitment

Employees are demanding more of their employers.

The impacts of the pandemic, along with the social and economic challenges of 2020, have many workers re-evaluating what they look for in a workplace.

It is easier to attract and retain employees when they can clearly see the company’s commitment to safety. Workers who believe their company cares for them — and who see proof of that care through action — will be more willing to contribute to its success.

When evaluating potential employers, workers are looking for:

• flexibility

• safe worksites

• mental health supports and mental wellness programs

• continuous health and safety training — particularly for OH&S professionals

• virtual learning opportunities.

Companies that build and maintain effective systems to protect workers — their most valuable resource — will be better positioned to succeed in the economic recovery ahead.

Into 2021 and beyond

As we move into a post-pandemic “normal,” the most successful companies in navigating the recovery will be those that:

• find ways to help workers feel valued for the hard work they are doing adapting to the many changes imposed by COVID-19

• communicate safety investments and successes and celebrate them as a team

• demonstrate that the CEO and other leaders believe that safety comes first

• create safe spaces for front-line staff to connect about potential safety issues, near misses and other concerns

• empower employees at all levels to build a strong safety culture

• partner with joint health and safety committees in ongoing safety success

• continuously seek to make the workplace safer for everyone.

Threats to business continuity and success in a sustained crisis challenge our core beliefs and values.

Your workers are watching to see how you respond. Put their safety in the forefront to meet the crisis together.

Lisa McGuire is the CEO of the Manufacturing Safety Alliance in Chilliwack, B.C.

This Safety Leadership column appears in the January/February 2021 issue of OHS Canada.