OHS Canada Magazine

What the pandemic has taught us

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September 28, 2020
By Alan Quilley

Health & Safety Human Resources COVID-19 editor pick leadership

Reflections on eight safety lessons learned due to COVID-19

For more on this topic, please tune into our Safe Zone podcast episode where Alan Quilley discusses how much the safety profession has changed as a result of the virus.

When I was talking with a valued fellow professional about writing this commentary, she said: “Oh no! Not another COVID article!”

I told her that I understood her concern. Who among us by now hasn’t heard just about all we can absorb about safety and this killer virus?

What I did tell her was that I’d try to be different and reflect on lessons learned so far.

Hindsight will indeed come in future decades and our successes and failures will fill numerous history books. But for now, here are my early reflections — eight lessons that COVID-19 and our responses have taught us collectively:


Leadership matters — a lot 

Countries with great leaders who took charge with authority and confidence — led by health expert advice — avoided the worst outcomes. Poor leadership shows… look for yourself. There are places that flattened the curve and places that exploded it.

Without clear leadership, the concerted efforts by groups tend to fail because they are disjointed and lack momentum.

Risk is relative

Who you are and what your pre-existing conditions, strengths and weaknesses are impacts your individual risk. This, like most risks that humans face, is relative.

Same virus, much different outcomes depending on who you are and the conditions in which you are living. Unfortunately, your government’s response also matters a great deal.

Counting injuries, illness is not measuring safety

Under-reporting of COVID-19-related illness is estimated to be from six to 24 times what has been officially counted.

If you want to predict safety, find out what the given population is doing about masks, distancing, hand washing and cleaning surfaces. What people do is real safety, not what does or doesn’t happen to them.

The ‘Control the Energy’ model works 

Keep the hazard away from the people or the people away from the hazard.

Every recommendation from health experts does exactly what the “Control the Energy” model suggests. (Energy source | Barrier | Path | Barrier | Protected person or thing)

It takes doing safety with people to be successful 

Compliant populations co-operating with health experts’ advice stayed safer than those who didn’t. The evidence is overwhelming.

Co-operating with others gets better results than creating conflict through lack of consultation, unclear messaging and weak leadership.

It takes both physical aspects and behavioural safety to get results

Safety behaviours (wearing masks, washing hands and surfaces, physical distancing) requires the behaviour of people and the availability of the needed physical things (masks, sanitizers, spaces large enough to accommodate distancing).

One without the other simply would fail and we’ve seen where it has.

Culture matters 

We couldn’t have afforded to do the type of worldwide experiment we just did. Compliant cultures did much better than non-compliant cultures in flattening their curve.

No matter what — be ready for it not to go well

Contingency plans need to be in place to mitigate negative outcomes.

Those ready for the second wave are doing better — and will continue to — than those who don’t.

We know with little doubt what both success and failure look like in our COVID-related safety efforts. Let’s hope the successes outweigh the failures. Stay healthy!

Alan D. Quilley, CRSP, is the president of Safety Results in Sherwood Park, Alta.

This Safety Management column appeared in the September/October issue of OHS Canada magazine.


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