OHS Canada Magazine

COVID-19 has changed workplace safety forever

Can safety professionals leverage the spotlight on the profession to push correction and compliance?


Without question, COVID-19 has brought about the largest shift in modern culture ever, writes Christopher Hurley. (Nikom1234/Getty Images)

Well, I’ll admit it. My crystal ball may have been a little foggy. In January, I wrote that technology trends would dominate the safety profession through 2020. That was pre-pandemic.

Although I can still state with certainty that tech trends will remain incredibly important to safety moving forward, COVID-19 now dominates every headline and conversation.

For at least the short term, everything about the way we do business has changed. Long-term impacts are pending, but in the meantime, let’s look ahead to what this all translates to for safety professionals moving forward.

Shift in safety culture

Without question, COVID-19 has brought about the largest shift in modern culture ever. Period. Full stop. And not just with safety, but with all facets of our life. Human behaviour has been completely upended.

As a safety professional, it’s fascinating to see such an embrace of — and commitment to — standard safety protocols on everything from HVAC maintenance to PPE adoption to distancing markers in grocery store lineups. All in the name of protecting ourselves and others.

It’s important to remember that just like in our challenges with buy-in on any safety topic,  there will be dissenters. And there certainly are in the case of COVID-19. But this is different. Loss is far more tangible. Fear runs rampant and people, for the most part, have responded.

Let’s take that response and open our minds to this presented, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Momentum on a new (or old) safety program component is difficult. You need a recognized gap, adequate resources, buy-in from senior management, a consulted supervisory and worker population, and then incentive — usually more than just legislation — to drive it all home.

That’s a lot, and as we all know, even if the moons properly align, it never goes smoothly.

But momentum is huge. The laser focus and current inertia COVID-19 has presented to the safety world will likely never be seen again.

Can safety professionals leverage the spotlight on the profession to push correction and compliance on culture challenges faced for years? At their essence, the issues are the same — a hazard exists, controls must be put in place, and it’s up to everyone to look after each other. Right?

It’s hard to know for sure, but a huge opportunity could be lost if this momentum diminishes or wavers because of time, absent consequences or financial challenges.

Willingness drives results

COVID-19 will forever be a reference point to our collective (macro or micro) ability to accomplish anything regardless of cost, level of difficulty or perception of impossibility. Never again should a safety challenge run into a barrier of cost, interest or risk-reward measurements.   

OK, perhaps that’s a bit of a safety pro’s utopia, but at the end of the day, how many things have we watched change around us that many would have labelled as “impossible” or “would never happen” since mid-February?

It felt like in a heartbeat we went from having the NBA season postponed to undergoing a full-scale countrywide shutdown because of risk. Simply incredible.

It begs the question: How often in the future will safety pros harken back to the days of COVID-19 where magic happened and miracles occurred all because of engagement at all levels across all people? Nothing was impossible. The world’s response to COVID-19 demonstrates how pure willingness and engagement will drive results.

We can see it so clearly. Lockdowns, physical distancing, testing and tracing have had a specific tangible result in the number of infected and the number of deaths.   

Money, time, difficulty and maintenance of these items will all be overcome to ensure businesses can remain successful through the pandemic, as well as post-pandemic. It is now the responsibility of everyone — and our collective commitment to safety.

At the end of the day, everyone is all in when it comes to keeping our businesses thriving and alive when safety concerns presents a business risk.

But when the dust settles, will the protection of people be paramount because culture around safety has changed? I guess we will have to wait and see.

This safety pro’s crystal ball is currently on hiatus.

Christopher Hurley is the founder of Safety Services Canada, a multi-functional health and safety consulting firm located in Caledonia, Ont.

This Hot Topic column was published in the May/June 2020 issue of OHS Canada.

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2 Comments » for COVID-19 has changed workplace safety forever
  1. waldin says:

    Have you not noticed that the workers in the picture “(Nikom1234/Getty Images)” are all wearing the masks backwards, i.e. inside out. LOL

  2. ICE says:

    Good catch Waldin…exactly!… was the first thing that jumped out to me too when I opened this thread…all wearing the PPE (masks) incorrectly/backwards :-). I also wondered if the pic was staged to show how some businesses pay cursory attention to safety, compared to the heightened awareness we are seeing now during this pandemic season which I think is what the post was trying to raise

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