As Occupational Safety & Health (OSH) professionals we are supporting a wide range of organisations in risk assessing a new way of working. Managing the risks of Covid-19 means identifying new hazards such as shared touch points and necessary activities where people come into close contact with each other. It also means thinking about groups of people who may be more vulnerable and risk assessing how an increased population work from home on potentially improvised workstations.
Organisations appreciate how important it is for them to determine their own considered risk-based choices in a manner not seen before. There has never been a greater understanding of risk principles. Being an OSH professional at this time highlights our knowledge and skills, and these are in high demand.
The consequences of contracting the virus are potentially catastrophic, therefore the adjustments we must all make to reduce the likelihood of infection are critical. Workplaces have had to adapt and change and adapt again if need be. We cannot reduce the risk to zero so control measures (determined via the hierarchy of risk control) to achieve ‘prevention first’ solutions are crucial. Leaders understand they must be involved as they manage all business risks to keep the wheels of industry turning.
A suitable and sufficient Covid-19 risk assessment cannot be such without looking at the mental health of workers. We have all been affected differently. We may be navigating the same storm, but all from different boats. Some are in boats where the lines have become tangled, the charts have gone overboard and they are taking in water; others are in brand new boats but adapting to the conditions, learning to use the controls and actually enjoying the change, yet others are using the oars, but seem to be going round in circles.
As an OSH professional also responsible for a small business the intensity of keeping up with changes whilst also supporting staff and customers is beyond anything I have personally experienced in nearly three decades.
As professionals working to prevent incidents and ill health it feels like we cannot do enough. Without proper focus and intervention, we run the risk of losing people battling a mental health crisis. Others will feel unable to do their jobs and some may fear a return to the rat race they were in before. Those in public-facing roles are afraid they will contract the virus. Additional, real, fears are around health, instability, finances and the unknown.
Therefore, any Covid-19 risk assessment must involve the assessment of psychological risks. I would argue without this it is not suitable and sufficient. I have explained the same to potential clients who would prefer to reduce the scope of the assessment. It is not an easy topic to delve into.
So where do you start with the risk assessment?
As with all assessments, we should identify hazards. In this case, it means talking to people and finding out how they are feeling. Everyone is different so it is important to determine who is going to be affected and how. What are the issues they are dealing with? This could be a simple conversation, or many organisations use a confidential questionnaire. From here priority areas will begin to emerge.
Use the HSE’s “Talking Toolkit”. This can guide a conversation around key areas.
- Demands – May be too high or too low. How can this be changed?
- Control – Currently there are many unknowns and it does not matter what your role in business is right now – planning is difficult.
- Support – Many are working in isolation and we cannot do what we were doing before, the social networks we have are not the same.
- Relationships – No-one should feel they are subject to unacceptable behaviours.
- Role – It can be harder right now to know if you are doing a good job or not and training or support from a line manager to understand expectations takes more effort.
Psychological safety is achieved in organisations which look at their culture and are willing to adjust how they organise and lead. All managers should be equipped with the right tools to manage, and give support to, their teams. This will help manage pressure and prevent mental ill health (elimination is the most effective control).
As we move along the hierarchy of risk control, measures such as wellbeing arrangements to encourage individuals to take personal responsibility around exercise, sleep, nutrition, hydration, rest, and alcohol, will be beneficial. Employment assistance programs and mental health first aiders provide somewhere for individuals to go but these are reactive controls. There needs to be HR arrangements in place for supporting ill health and return to work too.
How leaders communicate with their employees has never been put to a greater test. Clear, unambiguous, and thoughtful messaging is required combined with training to provide awareness and improve resilience. It is difficult when there is so much to do.
From the findings of the risk assessment, organisations will have a clearer view of any psychological risks so robust strategies and frameworks of support can be determined. It is important for this support to remain people-centred, so avoid detailed procedures which risk barriers in communication.
Everything has changed. VUCA was already reshaping our vocabulary. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity – these all surround us right now. Only by fostering an agile culture, being willing to try new things, and by adapting and embracing technology to communicate in new ways will we pull through these testing times.
As an IOSH approved training provider we recommend the following courses: