Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be the great disruptor of the traditional workplace, both in Colorado and around the world.
It appears a "new normal" of working from home and/or following enhanced safety protocols in offices, hospitals, factories and other work environments is likely to continue, even as the pandemic starts to ease.
For employers, it's a good time to reevaluate the needs of your workers and review your risk management policies. Here's Pinnacol's forecast for how the workplace will be reshaped by the pandemic, the new risks associated with the change and how you can manage it all:
As offices and worksites continue to open up, employers should consider preparing for potential lingering stress around COVID-19 as well as other infectious diseases and illnesses, even after it's gone.
In many cases, the old ways of supporting employees' stress management won't always suffice. Lori DeBardelaben, facilities operations and program manager at Pinnacol, is one of the people responsible for ensuring that employees feel safe in the office. "COVID-19 aside, employees will be far more conscious of communicable illnesses," she said. Employers might want to consider the steps they can take to help workers manage anxiety around their health and risk factors going forward.
This effort may need to go beyond the current focus by many employers on taking temperatures and checking vaccine cards, says Josh Kreger, director of safety innovation and strategy at Pinnacol. That can include preparing to address potential conflicts between those on different ends of the risk spectrum regarding infectious diseases and illnesses and workplace safety.
Employers can find ways to normalize mental health concerns and create a culture to support them. For example, you may want to allow employees to participate in mental health development, such as wellness initiatives, as part of their regular working hours.
"Companies need to do a good job of communicating with their employees and be empathetic to the fact that everyone's risk tolerance is different," says Kreger.
For much of 2020, most workspaces, especially in construction, manufacturing and health care, focused on mitigating COVID-19 risks. But OSHA's most frequently cited standards, including fall protection, proper scaffolding, and machinery operation and training, always need to be on employers' radars —pandemic or not.
"Yes, COVID-19 is an issue, but it's no different than every other hazard we're in charge of mitigating every day as a business," says Kreger. "Businesses can't get so focused on COVID-19 that they're now forgetting about the other hazards in our industries that have continued to kill and injure workers throughout the pandemic."
For employers who operate in a traditional office setting, there are considerations to be made about opening up, too. "I think there's going to be more calculus for office-based folks to prove to themselves they need to go back," Kreger says. "Determine whether your business operations depend on your going back, and if that's a no, then you shouldn't even consider it until widespread vaccine adoption has taken place and shown long-term efficacy in fighting the virus."
Employers who are reopening offices should also keep a focus on those traditional workplace hazards at the forefront. Slips, trips and falls account for more than 30% of reported injuries involving days away from work. Tripping over an extension cord or slipping on a slick floor can impact any employee, even the young and healthy who might not be at high risk for an illness like COVID-19.
If you choose to bring everyone back to the office, you'll also need to balance public safety needs with your workplace culture — how do you help your employees feel safe as they share the same quarters again?
"COVID is an unseen enemy. It's hard.....it's coming." Kreger says. "It's hard to know where it is and whether (or when) it's coming. For workers, that causes added levels of stress, but it's also something employers and safety professionals can consider, especially as they begin preparing the workspace."
In many cases, offices and facilities that had,pre-pandemic, already been prepping for the future might be ahead of the curve. According to DeBardelaben, touchless technology is likely to play a greater role at many workplaces, as will sneeze guards and upgraded air filtration systems.
"Even before the pandemic, many employers were implementing touchless technology to prevent transmission of the flu," says DeBardelaben. "Touchless faucets, soap and paper towel dispensers are nothing new, but touchless foot pulls on doors are affordable upgrades employers might also consider."
With so many buildings offline or only partially used during extended shutdowns, facility management also comes into play. Dormant buildings may pose hidden harms, such as Legionnaires disease. Have you evaluated your facilities to ensure they are still safe for employees?
For many workers, being able to work from home went from a dream to reality overnight during the pandemic. According to research from Pew, approximately one in five Americans worked from home pre-pandemic. Now, of those who are currently working from home, just over half would like to continue to do so.
Here is another instance in which thinking beyond COVID-19 compliance and focusing on worker health and safety for those continuing to work from home can help. Potential issues such as poor working conditions at home and a lack of focus on ergonomics could exacerbate injuries over the long term. It's good practice to create a plan to address those risks and communicate guidance to your workers who will continue to work from home.
Potential legal issues may also loom. Employing out-of-state workers over the long term can potentially affect your workers' compensation policy. According to Colorado statute, employees working in another state for more than six months, depending on reciprocity agreements, may not be entitled to benefits under their employer's workers' comp policy. As a result, some employers may have to purchase short-term, out-of-state coverage.
However you proceed, you may find it helpful to name a point person to monitor work-from-home risk management.
"To me, the new normal will be having someone at your business act as a worker safety champion, even if it isn't their full-time job," says Kreger. "Someone needs to care about safety and think about it, even when the sky is clear."
If there was any silver lining from COVID-19, it would be employee empowerment and the emergence of new ways of working. However, with innovation comes a need to address potential safety concerns. Plus, favoringCOVID-19 prevention could increase risk in other areas, according to Kreger.
For instance, the increased use of delivery and curbside pickup has helped customers stay safe and enabled businesses to generate revenue. But it also has posed risks with previously untrained workers stepping into new roles. Directing drivers to be so focused on COVID-19, mandating mask-wearing for drivers alone inside a vehicle, for instance, could potentially lead to distracted driving. Delivery drivers adjusting masks or having their glasses fog while driving could end up contributing to accidents.
Preparing for the risk associated with changes to your everyday practices is likely to pay off — not only by helping ensure your employees' health and safety are top of mind but also by keeping your business running.
"Safety is a business accelerant, and COVID-19 proved that," says Kreger. "The folks who had safety professionals ready to go were the first to get back into the office and in the field because they were already preparing for these types of scenarios. The rest were scrambling and trying to interpret ever-changing guidance from the federal and state governments."
COVID-19 has shown us the importance of preparing for the unexpected, but these lessons shouldn't end because the pandemic is slowing down. Understanding the risks and putting plans in place to help mitigate them can help your business stay ahead, even amid the most challenging of circumstances.