Setting Priorities Straight

July 27th, 2021 by Nathan Hobbs

When It Comes to Workplace Safety, COVID-19 Changes Everything

By Drew Vass

After traversing its way from a blip in international news briefs to historic pandemic, COVID-19 quickly became the number one workplace hazard in 2020—one that door and window companies had to deal with on the fly and under little guidance.

“In the beginning there was such a plethora of news and it really created a sense of fear among a lot of people,” says Jeff Jackson, president and CEO of PGT Innovations. So much fear, in fact, that when one of his company’s employees came down with the flu, 90 people threatened to walk off.

“Managing all of that fear was probably the toughest thing to do as a leader, because you’re dealing with people’s emotions,” Jackson says.

If experts are right, those emotions won’t be going away anytime soon.

Unlike typical job hazards, infectious disease represents an invisible enemy—one that’s difficult to account for through familiar safety protocols, says John Coniglio, Ph.D., managing director for OSEA, a provider of safety, environmental and risk assessment services headquartered in Orchard Park, N.Y. “We can assume we have the coronavirus in the air or on the surface somewhere, but we don’t know for sure unless you test,” he adds.

It’s those unknown factors and the seriousness of the disease that wreak havoc on workers’ psyches, leaving some to seek unemployment over re-enjoining the workplace.

“From day one, fear has been the enemy and has had the ability to generate considerable emotional stress, almost like ‘outbreaks’ which must be addressed,” says Sam Steves, president of Steves and Sons. “We combat the fear by taking overt actions, such as daily screening of every team member by uniformed registered nurses, and now high-tech automated touchless screening daily of every team member. We combat the fear by real time transparency with every team member regarding the multitude of steps taken to keep our workplace and our team members’ families safe.”

At the start of the pandemic, Jackson says his company saw turnover. But right away, he formed a COVID-19 task committee. Masks became mandatory in all of PGT Innovation’s facilities, along with frequent hand washing, social distancing and use of hand sanitizer. Every plant undergoes thorough cleaning between shifts.

“After people saw all of the things we’re doing to keep them safe, that’s brought a sense of calm and peace to all of our team members,” Jackson says. “Now, we’re seeing very little turn over as a result of COVID-19.”

Steve Dillon, marketing director for Veka, says his company shared a similar experience.

“We had to shut down for the initial 30 days, but when we reopened and told people that they could come back, there was a resistance there,” he says, adding, “We have to respect people’s comfort levels and the choices they make.” Over time, people became more at ease, Dillon says.

In this way, COVID-19 has made worker safety a top discussion point in 2020.

“Never before have I seen so much discussion of worker safety as I have during the novel coronavirus pandemic,” says Lisa Kath, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of psychology at San Diego State University. At the same time, “We hail grocery store workers and other ‘essential personnel’ as heroes, but are we doing enough to keep them safe?” she asks.

That’s a question that experts say employees across every industry will continue to ask going forward. Psychological scars will persist, “Possibly because workers bear the physical and socio-emotional burden of how countries respond to COVID-19,” Kath and other researchers say in the report “Occupational Health Science in the Time of COVID-19: Now more than Ever.”

Unofficial Hazards

For this reason, while common infectious diseases and the threat of future pandemics aren’t yet considered official workplace hazards, you should expect them to remain a focal point for workplace safety, experts say. “Simply because we know this is a credible workplace hazard … because the employer has a responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace,” says Kelly Baker, director of general industry services for SCT, a full-service occupational safety and health firm in Middleburg Heights, Ohio. Baker knows these changes as well as anyone. In a normal year, she spends the majority of her time focusing on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigations and abatement pertaining to such things as machine guarding and lockout evaluations. In 2020, her business is dominated by COVID-19.

Baker says she expects that going forward OSHA may want employers to institute pandemic response programs that spell out exactly how they are going to handle future threats. This will likely include programmatic responses and response teams for pandemics, detailed plans for additional safety leadership and training and communication plans.

As companies have been caught off guard and scramble to provide those measures amid the current pandemic, already there are whistleblowers raising flags to OSHA that their employers aren’t doing enough to protect them in the workplace, Baker says. Complaints range from not feeling there are enough engineering controls to not being given sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). “Those are investigated the same way as reporting a fatality or an inpatient hospitalization for COVID-19 would be,” she says. When it comes to employers, “One of the things that we tell folks is, ‘You need to document whatever it is you have put in place, so that if you get a phone call from OSHA saying they received a complaint, asking for documentation showing what you’re doing, you can provide that,’” she says.

Mental Scars

Beyond the physical threat of infection amid the pandemic and the logistical threat of quarantine and shutdowns, experts say that employers must also accept the psychological impacts of COVID-19 on employees—including after the pandemic is over. The current crisis has created a significant source of stress and anxiety, researchers say, and that isn’t expected to go away once there’s a vaccine. Not only will workers fear the next wave of disease, but the scars of increased financial pressures, social isolation, fear of infection and the eminent threat of job losses will impact employees for the foreseeable future. “Although the virus itself can cause ill-health and death in those infected, work-related stress associated with the pandemic can be another cause of disease,” writes Adam Butler, a professor of psychology at the University of Iowa. Shrugging off those effects could be detrimental to employers going forward.

“I think employers are going to have to prove every workplace is safe and secure, and that would include seeing someone who’s even suspect of any infectious situation—they’re going to have to act accordingly and make sure everything’s safe,” Coniglio says.

Social Factors

One reason that workers tend to struggle psychologically amid COVID-19, and will do so going forward, includes the knowledge that—like it or not—people come to work sick. For instance, in a past survey of American healthcare workers (of all people), 40% of those who developed flu-like symptoms said they worked through their illnesses. Research shows that there are various causes for this dilemma, including cases where employees feel pressured because they’re inundated with work and sense that they cannot afford to fall behind. In other cases, research suggests that employers that provide too little sick time or are otherwise inflexible about time off invite the issue into the workplace. Then there are typical socio-economic factors, including cases where income losses mean not being able to pay bills.

It happens every day, Baker says, even amid something as serious and threatening as COVID-19.

“You have a situation where, like one of my clients did, a temporary employee comes through the door,” she says. “They’re asymptomatic and they know they’ve been tested, but they need the money.” When it was discovered that the employee was sick, contact tracing showed that within two hours they came in direct or indirect contact with more than 100 other workers—all of whom had to be placed in quarantine for 14 days, she says.

For those who engage with the public for sales, there are also outsiders to consider—people who aren’t necessarily monitored or governed by workplace policies.

“We will probably continue to limit access to our plant by non-employees,” says Mark Thorne-Thomsen, president of Metal-Craft Doors in Dallas. “Access to our manufacturing line, office areas and showroom was too open previous to Covid-19.”

With the knowledge that some people report to work sick, employees are expected to cling to their fears going forward—including for other, less dangerous diseases.

“I think the average worker coming in doesn’t want to feel threatened by someone who might be contagious—with anything, actually,” Coniglio says. “They’re going to feel better about coming into work if they know the place is clean and that they have the ability to do what they need to avoid contact.”

Dillon says he expects masks could become a permanent part of the landscape—a personal choice that employees will lean on at key times, such as cold and flu season.

A Matter of Policy

After months of turmoil in which businesses have had to endure the financial difficulties of mandatory shutdowns and the logistical nightmares of reopening amid a pandemic, company owners and leaders are sure to recognize that upfront measures and preparedness are less costly, Baker says. For this reason, it’s expected that many of the measures established for COVID-19 will remain permanent.

“For those that are doing staggered shift starts and lunches in order to reduce the number of employees at the time clock or in the cafeteria, or that have set specific sanitation schedules, or have tasked employees with sanitation of their workstations on a regular basis,” those measures are easy enough to make permanent, she suggests. Already, some companies report that they’ve become first nature and therefore will likely outlast the pandemic. “We are certainly seeing some of the day-to-day safety measures implemented earlier this year now becoming routine,” says Jimmy Maasen, marketing manager for Quaker Windows and Doors. “That encompasses all aspects of our business, from office personnel taking the order, throughout our manufacturing sector, all the way to delivering product. While nothing is written in stone, there is definitely a feeling that some of these safety steps will continue on.”

They could also become requirements, depending on how OSHA responds in the months ahead to the threat of future pandemics. Ahead of COVID-19 and following incidents like H1N1 and Ebola, “OSHA did come out with pandemic brochures and information for how to proceed,” Coniglio says. “They
did try to publish it and give it an advisory system, and I think that’s what you’re going to see going forward.”

In the end, with or without specific OSHA regulations, permanent changes to how companies address the threat of illness in the workplace will remind us of just how important worker safety is, experts say.

“The COVID-19 crisis will end. Yet, history tells us that there will be more such events in the future, events that cause us to literally and figuratively drop everything to focus on the problem at hand,” concludes Kath and her fellow researchers. At the same time, one potential bright spot amid all of these lessons includes an increased recognition of our interconnectedness, they add, including “that workers from all walks of life are affected by large scale health threats and that all workers make valuable contributions to society.”

Drew Vass is the editor of [DWM] magazine.

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