Employee Safety Consciousness is the New Normal. Here’s Why That’s a Challenge and an Opportunity.

By: | October 12, 2021

John R. Anderson, DO, FACOEM, is the executive vice president and chief medical officer at Concentra, one of the nation’s largest providers of occupational health care. He oversees the overall delivery of care for more than 2,000 clinicians nationwide. He also oversees the clinical analytics and quality aspects of the company’s medical practice, ensuring Concentra’s value-based medicine standards and early intervention model for rapid, sustainable recovery are consistently practiced. He can be reached at [email protected].

The Delta variant of COVID-19 has dampened some of the optimism that began to percolate as rates of sickness, hospitalizations, and COVID-related deaths dropped in spring and early summer. For a time, it felt as though life was returning to normal.

Every state lessened travel and masks restrictions and people returned to indoor activities, large gatherings, and events. Beyond leisure activities, many offices began to ask their employees to come back to the office, whether for a full work week or on a hybrid schedule. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the vaccinated need not wear masks in many situations, both indoors and outdoors, it seemed as though the pandemic was at a watershed moment.

Return-to-work programs implemented at some companies helped them return to their full capabilities and earning capacity for the first time in over a year. In some industries, jobs had become so plentiful that many positions went unfilled. And then, the Delta variant emerged.

The rise of the highly contagious Delta variant has not yet fully extinguished the idea of a return to normal but has perhaps re-enforced the idea that a new normal will emerge, one that balances the realities of COVID-19 with the risks people are willing to incur. This has a bearing on the employee-employer relationship and how an employer can, and now must, protect employees.

Protection in the workplace

When the COVID-19 pandemic began and work-at-home declarations spread across the country, employers had to face a massive upheaval when it came to the way they interact with their employees. Essential businesses had to re-engineer the workplace on the fly, with the added stress of not knowing which industry would be hit with the next waves. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities were hit early and hard, and the meat and poultry processing industries were the sites of many massive outbreaks.

Now, however, there are resources available for businesses to help them protect their employees without going into a full shut down – with time, experts have crafted ways to continue business while mitigating outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and countless other government bodies have released (sometimes conflicting, sometimes confusing) rules and recommendations to improve workplace and employee safety. Additionally, the CDC and many trade groups offer specialized advice tailored to the challenges of different industries.

When crafting new processes based on these rules and recommendations, employers need to be aware that advice, even from experts and scientific bodies, may change over time. For this reason, it’s important to return to sources and websites periodically to stay up to date with relevant information. As new variants emerge and further research is published, guidance will evolve. While changes around mitigation efforts may have little impact on a workforce, a change in testing requirements, for example, could have a significant impact on when employees can return to work after an exposure.

Putting safety in the forefront

The pandemic has also elevated the importance and weight of overall employee safety. Nearly every company was surprised by the speed and ferocity of the pandemic, but the ongoing stress of the pandemic has revealed previously hidden vulnerabilities in workplace safety plans and health protocols. Employees are more aware than ever about the risks and conditions of their jobs.

It’s no longer enough to just protect employee health. We must also actively promote it. This should be viewed as an opportunity and not a threat. Employers have a chance to meaningfully improve their employees’ environments, health, and well-being at a time when everyone is paying attention.

With the right responses and measures, this pandemic can create a safer world – one where companies and their employees are more aware of their surroundings, risks, and exposures.

Employers should use this as an opening to revisit their ergonomic guidelines or take a renewed look at their employees’ risk for coming into contact with blood borne pathogens and other infectious and toxic agents. Employees will notice safety improvements regardless of their relationship to COVID-19.

Occupational health and protecting employees

As employees cautiously return to work, occupational health experts have been gifted with an unexpected opportunity that forces us to rapidly adapt to existing and changing circumstances and to leverage that knowledge to identify and ameliorate existing health and safety risks. Occupational health and safety experts have leaned into assuring greater employee safety.

Employees need to feel comfortable getting treatment for work-related injuries and illnesses, and occupational health experts can best serve these interests by remaining focused on workforce health. This translates into offering a safe medical environment for employees seeking treatment, one where both the employer and employee have confidence that strict COVID-19 policies and other safety protocols are in place to ensure their personal safety. The entire healthcare community will band together to end the pandemic and institute a new normal, with occupational health experts leading the way by protecting America’s workforce as employees seek the care they need.

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