The ‘New’ Workplace: Rethinking Workplace Safety after a Pandemic

There is no doubt about it: the last two years have caused a significant disruption in what we once called the ‘traditional’ work environment.

With people forced to work remote for an indefinite amount of time, workplace safety was put on the back burner for many companies.

But now, as more and more people are heading back into the office for in-person work, businesses of all sizes in varying industries are finding that the topic of workplace safety needs to be re-addressed and tailored to the ‘new’ environment that 2022 has brought.

“As we reenter the workforce and see what’s going on, we should be thinking about retraining not only for our jobs, but for what is new in the workplace … reset and retrain, whether you think you need it or not. Shake off the cobwebs,” said Greg Holder, vice president of risk control services at Lockton Companies.

New OSHA Standards

With the world operating in a new normal, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has recently released some new guidelines. In April, it launched the National Emphasis Program on heat, which aims to protect workers from the threat of heat-related illness. The nationwide enforcement mechanism will be able to inspect workplaces for heat-related hazards, both indoors and outdoors. The program also provides heat priority days when temperatures are expected to reach over 80 degrees.

Also in April, OSHA renewed its commitment to agriculture worker safety in and around grain bins. Some of the focus points that were discussed included adding safety harnesses and anchored lifelines, placing a trained observer outside of the bin in case of an emergency, and testing the air in the bin before entering.

There are also still a variety of emerging issues in the health care field that OSHA will continue to look closely at. In June 2021, OSHA published an interim final rule that put an emergency temporary standard in place for health care workers to be protected from exposure to COVID-19.

Training Protocol

Now that more people are back in the office, it is critical to take the time to re-train employees on what safety means. If that is neglected, businesses can expect more injuries and worker’s compensation claims to skyrocket.

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“During the pandemic we saw a decrease in traditional training, both online and in-person. As employees transition back to work, we believe that it is crucial for companies to return to pre-pandemic training protocol,” said Eric Koeppe, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, Nebraska Chapter.

With a renewed focus on wellness and safety guidelines at work, there is greater attention to keeping workers not only productive, but safe. That’s why having a written safety protocol outlined and distributed to each employee is key.

If creating guidelines is something that you don’t have experience in, talking to a private safety and health consultant is a good first step.

Michael Connett of Connett Safety Solutions said the benefits of working with an experienced consultant will save time and ensure you have proper safety guidelines in place.

“This is a great way to ensure that your company is covered regarding these issues,” he said. “It is imperative that we remember the basic safety rules that your company had had in place prior to the pandemic.

“In addition to those previous ‘old school rules,’ we now should also observe and follow the new rules that will be in place at most businesses … we all want and deserve a safe and healthy workplace.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 48 individuals in Nebraska were killed in workplace incidents in 2020. Of those, 26 of them were from transportation incidents. Nationally, falls, slips, and trips were the second-most common fatal event, making up 17% of all fatal workplace injuries.

“In the state of Nebraska, roadway incidents should not be the leading cause of workplace fatalities. The data shows we are not doing enough to protect our workers,” Koeppe said.

“Workplace fatalities should never be considered a cost of doing business. Employers need to take a methodical approach to safety that includes having training, policies, and risk assessment techniques in place to address causes of fatalities and injuries.”

The techniques don’t need to be complicated, either.

Chris Cameron, director of occupational health for Makovicka Physical Therapy, recommended that business owners consider implementing a stretching/activity program for all employees to participate in during the day.

“Most employers in manufacturing and production have these programs in place, but more and more office-based employers are embracing the idea,” he said.

“Stretching/activity programs are often paired with other wellness initiatives such as weight loss/dietary plans and exercise competitions. The employer can use these initiatives to help lower health insurance premiums by showing that they have certain percentages of their workforce involved in healthy lifestyle behaviors.”

Insurance Coverage

As you update your training procedures, it is an ideal time to take inventory of your current insurance coverages. In tandem with that, establishing a good working relationship with an occupational health provider that you trust can be beneficial.

“When businesses have a close relationship with their providers, injuries can be treated sooner and kept as small medical issues before becoming costly claims that involve major medical intervention and time lost by the worker,” Cameron said.

“A close relationship between employer and provider allows the provider to make better recommendations for job rotation, restrictions, and accurate return-to-work planning because the provider has full-scope knowledge of the employer’s operations and the demands of each of the jobs.”

Positive Work Culture

People from all walks of life are continuing to grapple with the fallout of the pandemic. In addition, there are a host of other world events that are causing people stress and anxiety. Learning to process the many feelings and emotions that come can be difficult. Because of this, more and more employees are experiencing mental health crises that are impacting how they complete their jobs.

In fact, the negative impact on mental well-being is causing a lack of focus, which unfortunately can lead to accidents or fatal mistakes at work.

“We are seeing a mental reshaping and that can manifest itself in a lack of focus. Without question, injuries have happened more because the employee’s focus was off. In the last 90 days alone, we have seen more reports of fatalities and more severe injuries,” Holder said.

“As they head back to in-person work, employees might recognize that they are different than they were before. Mental health is a huge thing.”

He shared that it is important for employers to recognize the struggles that their workers may be facing transitioning from remote-only work, and that it may take time to rebuild the company’s culture.

“Company cultures have taken a hit,” he explained. “And now, with the ‘great resignation,’ employers are struggling with the fact that they may only have a limited amount of time with their employees. So, they are working hard to ask themselves how they can get their culture back.”

The National Safety Council – Nebraska Chapter is currently partnering with the National Council for Mental Wellbeing to offer Mental Health First Aid training to assist companies with the skills to respond to mental illness and substance abuse.

“Mental health concerns in the workplace may have been caused due to an increase in workload, a change in the work environment, or simply the change in one’s regular routine,” Koeppe said. “Mental health challenges affect all organization levels. Our goal is to work together to combat the issue.”

Safety Begins with You

Cameron said that as employees find their rhythm back on-site at work, take things slowly.

“Slowly introducing new, or slowly resuming old activities is the safest way to prevent overuse injuries,” he said. “I tend to have people increase their activity levels by no more than 20% each week to help their bodies gradually accommodate new stresses.”

And, if you do happen to be injured on the job, reporting it in a timely fashion and getting medical help is not only helpful physically, but financially for the employer.

“The biggest complaint I hear from employers about soft tissue injuries is, ‘I wish our people would report injuries sooner,’: he said. “There has been a drastic shift in the last 10 years from employers resenting employees reporting minor injuries to now embracing (and often thanking) employees for reporting soft-tissue injuries early so they can be treated earlier. This reduces the financial impact on the employer in the long run and benefits the employee by making them healthier and more productive while at work.”

“We all have someone in our lives that loves and cares about us and is expecting us to walk through the door at the end of the day,” Connett said. ”Our actions during the day shouldn’t be the cause that person doesn’t see you walk through that door. Safety is easy if you just think about it.”