COVID effect: safety is king
By Jack Burton
2020 global pandemic has put OH&S at the forefront
It may finally be a new year, but the overwhelming changes that 2020 brought to everyday life are here to stay — at least for some time longer.
Though the list of what has been fundamentally changed by the COVID-19 pandemic grows each day, the workplace is certainly near the top.
Whether employees suddenly find themselves working from home, or from behind Plexiglas, the workplace transformations across nearly every industry have all occurred out of an increased need to focus on health and safety.
It follows then, that the occupational health and safety industry finds itself in a position that’s unique, unprecedented, but most of all, unexpected.
The increased focus on health and safety has been so major that even industry professionals couldn’t have entirely anticipated it.
“A year ago, I’d have laughed at people who said ‘I predict the surgeon general of the United States is going to come on YouTube and show you how to cut a T-shirt into a mask,’” said Wagish Yajaman, manager of specialty services at Workplace Safety and Prevention Services in Mississauga, Ont.
No matter how outlandish the idea of a government-mandated mask tutorial may have seemed just 12 months ago, Yajaman sees it as a prime example of finding “what’s achievable and available in protecting people” — a philosophy that OH&S professionals have been bringing into workplaces since the first wave of COVID-19.
Infectious disease control
Much of the industry in 2020 has been informed by a set of circumstances created by the current pandemic, where workplaces can no longer overlook the beneficial intricacies of occupational health and safety, especially regarding infection and source control.
“I think that there’s simply a lot of workplaces where infectious disease control hasn’t necessarily been thought of in the past,” said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association in Ottawa.
Among these affected workplaces, Culbert highlights “any workplace that was marginal to begin with” — such as the meat-packing industry — as occupational environments that “became the perfect breeding ground for COVID.”
It’s these workplaces — and the outbreaks that their safety shortcomings have led to — that have, according to Culbert, “put a spotlight on those potential problem areas during normal times, because they’re even more significant problem areas during COVID.”
OH&S at the forefront
The unanticipated ease and volatility with which these workplace outbreaks occurred illustrate that not only are the safety needs of the workplace changing, but with it, the importance and demand of the OH&S professionals who help create that safety.
“The days in which it was believed ‘that safety is just common sense’ and ‘anybody can do safety’ are over,” said David Johnston, president and CEO of the Board of the Canadian Registered Safety Professionals in Mississauga, Ont.
“I don’t foresee the roles and responsibilities of OH&S pros changing as much as I see more employers begin to recognize that OH&S is, in fact, a profession… supported by specialized education, knowledge, skills and credentialing, similar to other professions such as lawyers, engineers (and) accountants,” he said.
While the circumstances of the pandemic are certainly negative, the increased need for the skill sets of OH&S professionals across workplaces has been a positive for the industry at large.
From Johnston: “What I hear from many other OH&S professionals is that they found themselves very much in demand and at the forefront of protecting workers and responding to the many unknown and changing risks presented by COVID-19.”
This elevated demand for the unique solutions of workplace health and safety professionals under the pandemic is an occasion Johnston believes the industry has certainly risen to.
“While we have heard of some workplaces having COVID-19 outbreaks, I have yet to hear of an organization that employs a credentialed OH&S pro in a leadership position that had an outbreak,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen.”
The essential role that the occupational health and safety industry has played in the COVID crisis through 2020 hasn’t just created safer workplaces. Johnston also believes that safety successes indicate the increased demand for OH&S won’t be dissipating anytime soon.
“Now that the value of an OH&S pro has been made manifest,” he said, “the demand for qualified and competent OH&S pros has increased substantially and I believe this trend will
Focus on safety impacts workforces
To what degree, exactly, has the industry made its value and purpose evident throughout 2020 and the pandemic?
The Institute for Work & Health (IWH) in Toronto conducted a number of studies measuring the various avenues where an increased focus on occupational health and safety has impacted overall workforces — and the results are evidently positive.
IWH president and senior scientist Cameron Mustard said that in the second wave, workplace outbreaks in essential service industries — excluding health care, education and congregate living (for example, correctional) workplaces — represented six per cent of COVID-19 cases among working-age people (ages 20 to 69) in Ontario.
Mustard credited this figure with “the often-substantial adjustments to work practices implemented by employers, often developed in consultation with workers.”
IWH also found that an emphasis on occupational health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic promotes positive mental health amongst workforces.
One study surveyed more than 10,000 workers over the first wave of the pandemic, with Mustard describing that “on-site workers who felt they had access to the safety equipment and protocols needed to protect them from COVID-19 were the least likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression.”
In contrast, on-site workers who felt none of their COVID safety needs were in place were most likely to report mental health symptoms, with Mustard claiming their distress to exceed even the demographic of “those who were working at the start of the emergency, but had since lost their jobs.”
Rapid state of change
While the chaos of COVID has provided the occupational health and safety industry with a number of opportunities to further optimize workplace safety, that very same chaos has also created an environment where the available information and protocols change on a near-daily basis.
“What was talked about at the beginning of the pandemic, the middle of the pandemic, and now, has evolved,” said Yajaman. “So how do you now not confuse people with what’s being provided in policy and government direction?”
The answer to that question seems to rely on three pillars, according to Yajaman — speed, accuracy and timeliness.
“Those are basically the three terms that, whenever something arises, we look at,” he said. “It has to be fast, it has to be accurate, and it has to be done in a timely basis so that people have better information to reduce confusion and provide a better understanding of the issue.”
Fulfilling all three of those qualities isn’t something that needs to be achieved by workplace safety professionals alone.
In fact, Yajaman sees pandemic-necessitated collaboration between industries as one of the more significant positive changes the health and safety world underwent in 2020.
“This classical thinking that, ‘Oh, health and safety, it belongs with this group of people, under this jurisdiction, under this ministry,’” he said. ”Suddenly it’s like, wait a second — maybe not?”
The shift into this new paradigm of collaborative networks between industries is filled with possibility.
“Instead of finding differences, now we’re looking at commonalities, and how we can share information, how we can all benefit from it, rather than looking at what would belong on what side of the line,” said Yajaman.
“I think (the pandemic) has destroyed all of that, and I hope it doesn’t get rebuilt.”
Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.
This story appears on the cover of the January/February 2021 issue of OHS Canada.
This story has been updated.