Wise workplaces in the COVID-19 era

Views from the experts on occupational health and safety in a pandemic.

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Por Clare Naden
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It’s been around a year since the COVID-19 pandemic turned our world upside down, and that includes the world in which we work. Certainty has hung up its hat, normality looks unlikely to return and unpredictability is here to stay for the long term. How can organizations manage in this context, and how can employees keep themselves safe while fulfilling their obligations?

Agility and flexibility are the hot new recruits, according to Sally Swingewood and Martin Cottam, Manager and Chair of ISO/TC 283, ISO’s expert committee on occupational health and safety (OH&S).

The committee recently published ISO/PAS 45005, Occupational health and safety management – General guidelines for safe working during the COVID-19 pandemic, a publicly available specification designed to help employers and employees in all areas of work, from one-man bands to multinationals.

As the pandemic shows little sign of relief for some time yet, we discuss why some organizations are faring better than others in this era, and what more can be done.

ISO: It’s been just over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic first shook our world. What have we learned regarding how to manage workplaces?

Martin: It’s really hard to generalize, and perhaps that is actually one of the key lessons. Work takes so many different forms and there are many different types of organization, each affected differently. Some organizations have made the transition to home office working seamlessly, but many other roles continue to require a physical presence and interaction with others.

At the same time, people are different and their circumstances are different, so what is manageable for one person may not be for another. One lesson has been the need to tailor the measures both to the organization itself and, where possible, to the circumstances of individual workers.

Sally: This period has also shown us the importance of agility, flexibility and business continuity planning. Many organizations have had to make multiple adjustments at short notice as the situation in which they operate changes, and that is likely to continue. Going forward, they need to make sure that knowledge and key skills are shared more effectively; they must also be willing and able to adapt to rapid changes in their context.

While working from home was, and still is, encouraged, the reality is that there are many jobs that can’t be done from home. How can these workers reduce their risks?

Martin: There are indeed lots of jobs that can’t be done remotely, including essential services such as retail, transport, utilities, and the health and social care sectors. The work needs to take place either on the employer’s premises or offsite such as in a public space, on another organization’s premises, in someone else’s home, and so on. In many cases, this involves contact with other workers and/or members of the public. Those exposed to larger numbers of people are clearly at greater risk. Statistics show that transport drivers, for example, have suffered one of the highest mortality rates from COVID-19.

But in all these contexts, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of transmission. Measures can be applied through reorganizing the work, through minimizing human contact, applying social distancing, limiting the number of people travelling together in vehicles, avoiding the sharing of drinks and food, and applying hygiene measures throughout the course of work. There are also steps that can be taken to adapt the layout of premises in order to increase separation between workers, or between workers and the public, as well as to improve ventilation and to sanitize surfaces, for example.

But, of course, all this requires that employees adhere to the measures that the organization puts in place. The key here is communication and consultation. If staff feel they fully understand why certain measures are in place, and that they are consulted and heard regarding such decisions, they are more likely to be engaged and act in a safe way.

Can some of the measures actually pose other risks?

Sally: Yes, sometimes the rules or measures put in place can undermine existing health and safety control measures or adversely affect people with disabilities. Changing the layout of a workplace or changing signage can pose problems and risks for those with mobility, sight or hearing issues, for example, so it’s important to consider the needs of all workers when adapting workplaces or introducing new measures.

Martin: This is also true for public spaces where there are new configurations aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. For example, an organization might transfer some activities from inside to outside, such as waiting areas, but then they need to make sure that those areas are safe as well because it could be where vehicles would normally manoeuvre, and so on.

Even restricting the number of people on the premises or involved in an activity could pose risks, because that could result in people working alone with insufficient first aiders or fire marshals on hand, for example.

Female bus driver wears a protective transparent face shield during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What about jobs that are carried out in public spaces or where no measures can be introduced? How do you keep police officers or postal workers safe, for example?

Martin: One of the big challenges for organizations whose workers operate in public spaces is the variety of situations they may encounter, as well as the range of behaviours they may experience from the public with whom they interact. Preparing workers for these situations is essential. It’s also important to monitor the various contexts in which these workers find themselves in order to adapt measures where necessary.

Sally: On top of good guidance, there are also practical solutions that an organization can offer its staff, such as sanitizing and disinfecting materials, for example.

Working from home was encouraged and seen as the safest option, yet it is not without its own risks either.

Martin: It’s true that some people can easily adapt to working from home while, for others, it’s either not possible or desirable, or both. For some, there are obvious challenges surrounding workspaces. The kitchen table may be fine for one day, but when you have to do it for months on end and you have young children needing attention, that’s a different story. Working from home can also lead to physical complaints if the workspace is not set up well, and, for some, it is just downright stressful.

Some employees find that not having the same level of contact with management can lead to a sense of job insecurity, and so they overwork. Others may see their workload decrease for various reasons (projects cancelled and the like) leading to “underwork”, which can also be a source of stress and anxiety.

Sally: And things like end-of-year assessments can weigh heavily on people who haven’t had a hope of achieving their objectives due to the situation or the resulting stress. Not to mention the lack of social contact. But then for some people, of course, working from home has improved their work-life balance and reduced their stress levels. The challenge for them may come when or if they eventually have to go back to the office!

Let’s talk about stress…

Sally: One truly positive outcome of this pandemic is that it has got people talking about mental health more openly. And it’s important that people are talking, that they feel heard and that they don’t have management or other colleagues dismissing their anxiety. Whatever they are feeling, it is real and they should feel safe to express it. Mental health has been severely challenged over the last year and it is vital we get rid of any stigma around stress, anxiety and depression.

Martin: It’s also important to recognize that everyone has a different set of challenges to deal with and thus they have different needs. Some staff may be absolutely fine and don’t need any extra support, while others may well need to make some adjustments so they can work effectively. An employer that trusts its staff and tries to be flexible can really help to reduce work-related stress.

In organizations where it is difficult to offer such flexibility, like retail or construction, it’s important that employees feel they can express their concerns. This might be around other colleagues not following safety procedures or if they need extra safety equipment. Listening to, and consulting with, employees really is the key – it’s good both for the individual and the success of the organization.

Many governments and organizations published OH&S guidelines during the first wave of COVID-19. Why the need for ISO/PAS 45005?

Sally: While there were various sources of guidance available early on, many of these were targeted towards particular sectors or settings. The British Standards Institute saw the opportunity to develop a set of generic guidelines for the UK. When we realized how great the uptake was, particularly from countries where there wasn’t an equivalent at the time, it was clear that there was a need for internationally agreed good practice that could be applied in any setting.

Martin: ISO/PAS 45005 is generic in its applicability, but specific in terms of the guidance it provides. It gives organizations straightforward practical help, to alert them to what they need to address or implement in order to keep operating, without compromising the health and safety of their workers and others affected by their activities.

Sally: It is hoped that the PAS will help companies to adapt, survive and stay in business, no matter how their local situation changes, without having to compromise on worker safety. By being fully prepared, we should be able to save both lives and jobs.

What about those who don’t fit the traditional employer/employee model, such as contractors, casuals, independents or illegal workers? 

Sally: When we developed the PAS, we specifically wanted it to be useful for any kind of employee or employer, and to be applicable to any kind of job, anywhere in the world. There are many people who, for a variety of reasons, have no choice but to keep working, but there are always measures that can be taken to help reduce their risk of infection. This PAS can help individual workers to better understand what they can do to protect themselves, even if they are self-employed or don’t have fixed work patterns or a single employer. We discussed this at length with our colleagues in many different countries and continents to be sure we were being relevant.

Martin: This is also a key reason why we asked for ISO/PAS 45005 to be made freely available, so that a person’s economic situation is not a barrier. We have also had it translated into Spanish with this in mind.

What do you think will be the longer-term impacts on workplaces?

Martin: I think one obvious change is likely to be an increase in the time office workers spend working from home. For many organizations, the pandemic has demonstrated that remote working can be effective and that it offers benefits to both workers and the organization. I also suspect that many organizations will seek to exploit the potential of virtual meetings to a much greater extent going forward to reduce the amount of business travel.

There may be other impacts on the design and layout of workplaces, where organizations seek to maintain some of the adjustments that reduce the risk of transmitting infections between workers and when dealing with the public.

Sally: I also think that the pandemic has driven a lot of positive change in terms of operational efficiencies and rethinking procurement and the supply chain to make it more robust. Many organizations will not revert entirely to how they operated before because the new changes work well.

How can future standards help?

Sally: Firstly, we intend to review and revise ISO/PAS 45005 as necessary. We purposely chose the agile format of a PAS both for its rapidity and flexibility, so that we can update it according to how the situation evolves or develop it further into a full standard. It will also be well complemented by ISO 45003, the upcoming standard on psychological health and safety at work, which will be published later this year.

Many organizations’ management of OH&S has tended to focus more on safety than on health, and more on physical health than on mental health, but this is beginning to change. The pandemic has really contributed to breaking down the taboo around mental health in the workplace and it is a necessary component of health and safety for any organization.

Martin: We have also initiated work on a standard related to the prevention and management of infectious diseases at work. It will cover COVID-19 and similar viruses, but also other illnesses such as the seasonal flu as it can have a big impact on the working of the organization, without necessarily being life-threatening.

Sally: The idea is to build on what we have learned during the pandemic about the need for planning and the effectiveness of things like enhanced hygiene regimes. All this is vital in order to better manage infections, including those we normally just put up with at work.

ISO/PAS 45005 is available from your national ISO member or the ISO Store.

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