OHS Canada Magazine

Q&A: How Walmart Canada shifted operations in response to COVID-19

Carolyn Homes has helped ensure safety for employees, customers


Plexiglas barriers were a part of Walmart Canada’s new safety protocols due to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Carolyn Homes, a health and safety manager with the company. (Photo submitted)

Since March, companies across Canada have been grappling with new health and safety restrictions and lockdown measures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Carolyn Homes is a health and safety manager, and a member of the environmental, health and safety team, at Walmart Canada’s Store Support Centre (SSC) in Mississauga, Ont.

OHS Canada: How difficult has it been to adjust Walmart Canada operations as a result of the pandemic?

Carolyn Homes: As set out by legislation, Walmart Canada was deemed an essential service during this pandemic; therefore, we needed to adjust many of our operations.

In the stores, here are some examples of protocols that were put in place:

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• fencing at the entrance to assist control capacity

• floor markings to ensure proper social distancing

• Plexiglas for our cashiers, customer service and
pharmacy

• enhanced COVID-19 cleaning protocols

• Wellness Screening, including a temperature check for our associates

• COVID-19 signage.

The industry saw an immediate shortage on key products such as cleaning supplies and toilet paper, which really challenged our merchandise teams to deliver for our customers.

We saw customers change their shopping habits with less visits but higher volume, and we needed to increase our online presence.

With the growth in pickup and delivery, we needed to ensure safety protocols were in place to protect our customers and associates. The goal is to ensure that all associates are working safely under these challenging conditions and going home safely at the end of their shifts!

Walmart also needed to provide instruction to our vendors regarding the new protocols that have been put in place. The positive is that many of the protocols are consistent across the retail industry and are becoming the “new normal.”

How has Walmart Canada adjusted employee operations to reflect health and safety measures?

CH: In March, one of the biggest adjustments was the closing down of SSC that supports all businesses. Months later, remote working continues unless necessary, and several protocols have been put in place to attend the SSC.

Over time, this new way of working is being received very positively and associates are very productive. Efforts have been put in to ensure associates feel part of their team and the overall Walmart team through updates from senior leaders, utilizing creativity and fun that has been built into the Zoom meeting environment.

One step that Walmart took very early on with our SSC associates was instituting “meeting-free” times throughout the day. This has had a very positive impact on the health and well-being of the associates. 

In the stores and distribution centres, employee operations have changed in countless ways, but I believe that retail associates choose a dynamic career for a reason and are very much accustomed to rapid change.

They have done amazing throughout this pandemic.

What difficulties have there been in operating in multiple jurisdictions with various regulations in place?

CH: Managing health and safety for a national retailer is always a challenge in normal times, as you need to be aware of federal, provincial and municipal legislation that can impact your business.

Since the pandemic began, there have been many times that key members of the response team have needed to react very quickly to ensure the businesses were equipped with communication and tools they needed to support changing protocols.

Customers are not always aware of the current standards that have been put in place, even with the investment retailers have made in sharing these publicly.

In these stressful times, this can cause friction; however, with the support in place, store managers have really been able to de-escalate situations.

An example of a step that was taken — because it was the right thing to do — was an early move to “mandatory masks” for associates, customers and vendors. Early on, this was met with some customer resistance, but consistent messaging was in place and helped to successfully reinforce this initiative.

In addition, if situations escalate, management knows they have the support from many individuals — including the existing Violence in the Workplace team.   

What health and safety lessons have you learned as a result of the current situation?

CH: Canadian retailers have dealt with many different health and safety risks over the years, but this pandemic is unprecedented and the learnings have been large.

With Walmart being a global company, there is a benefit to gaining intelligence and best advice from other countries who have already experienced similar issues.

Many processes have been altered, but one of the biggest lessons learned is that the efficiencies that have been implemented will have positive impacts going forward.

For example, although our in-house computer-based health and safety training was not affected, the in-person H&S training conducted by third-party providers was.

Some provinces did grant certification extensions for certain training. However, with the record number of new hires this year and the turnover that is traditional in retail, new certification training was needed.

By working with our vendors, we were able to move all theory training to online/virtual and are able to conduct socially distanced practical training as required.

The great news is that associates love it! A lesson that is key is the need to build relationships and work together during these difficult times.

I am very proud to be working for a company whose message from Day 1 of this pandemic has been “safety is our priority.” You will see this message throughout the organization and across public platforms.

In my experience, companies can say this — but Walmart is living proof of it!

This Person of Interest feature was published in the November/December 2020 issue of OHS Canada.