NASS Perspectives: Health & Safety in a Socially Distant World

Covid-19 has impacted people across the globe with over 2.5 million reported cases worldwide. In such challenging times, construction and manufacturing are critical to the initial response and recovery.

People have and always will be the most valuable asset of organisations and taking necessary steps to protect them is of the utmost importance to business leaders. Health and safety is, and always will be right at the top of the agenda in the workplace. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, H&S is even more crucial. Businesses have rapidly had to adapt their usual practices to incorporate social distancing measures to protect their most valuable asset, people. The way we conduct business in our workplace has fundamentally changed and how we interact with our customers, colleagues and suppliers has evolved and will continue to evolve as we navigate the various stages of the pandemic.

Social distancing was introduced March 2020, as a public health measure to help reduce the spread of infection and control risk. It has necessitated a full re-evaluation of safety and wellbeing measures across all organisations; from regular hand washing to disinfecting all surfaces before and after use, to ensuring employees are keeping 2 metres apart from their peers and shielding to prevent potential infection are now part of what we class as the “new normal”.

As businesses start to open in this new phase,  the workplace is evolving to protect people. To aid this process, home working has become the norm for office staff where it is possible to do so. All organisations are adapting as doctors surgeries and veterinary practices are operating video/telephone consultations, and stores are following social distancing and hygiene measures by installing markers on floors to ensure customers keep 2 metres apart, together with limiting the number of customers in store and encouraging contactless payments.

How is the Steel Industry Adapting?

The steel industry has also had to adapt. Many have remained open but with less staff and increased home working for office-based employees. Those who must go into the workplace are using keyboard and chair covers, Perspex sheets between workstations and floor markers. Haulage drivers are still delivering goods but with new measures in place – limited waiting time, faster handovers and less interaction at drop points.

The use of PPE such as single use masks and gloves has surged. While PPE is crucial to prevent the spread of the virus, the environmental impact must be considered and safe disposal is also important to prevent the spread. We are already starting to see these items littered on the floor and in hedgerows. Safe waste disposal of these items is important; if a mask is infected, the infection cycle will start again. Correct and total disposal of PPE must be followed everyday as a top priority health and safety measure. As we navigate this new phase, the steel industry should consider providing guidelines on both the use and disposal of PPE.

Here are three areas that steel stockholders and managers need to focus on in order to prepare for the next stage of the pandemic – the reopening of business.

1. Protecting the workforce.

Policies and procedures need to be adapted or completely redrawn to ensure employees are kept safe. If this is not possible then the essentiality of the business operation needs to be challenged. If it remains essential, then a way to do it safely must be found or created. Any changes need to be communicated clearly to ensure full understanding and compliance; updated processes need to be taken on board. Additionally, employee feedback needs to be acted upon swiftly to ensure any concerns are addressed. It is vital, employees feel safe. Two-way communication is vital.

Where a new process, policy or procedure is agreed and communicated within the business, senior managers should consider (and in our opinion are morally bound to) sharing the reason for and the details of new procedures. We also encourage stockholders to exchange knowledge amongst themselves to ensure safe working practices.

Employers also need to consider the mental wellbeing of their employees who are returning after a significant period of either home working or furlough, especially if the worker is not familiar with the revised practices.

Changes to current policies and procedures need to include measures such as increased hygiene, enhanced social distancing, mental health monitoring and provision of extra appropriate PPE (where necessary). Where shift working is possible, thought should be given to a better spread of employees over all shifts to aid social distancing.

2. Risk management.

Businesses need to anticipate sudden changes and prepare to react quickly. Managing risk and re-evaluating current risk levels will help to create a flexible, responsive model to enable business critical reactions.

Safety of the building, water systems and plant and machinery inspections will need to be checked and monitored before reopening so that any problems can be rectified before work begins. A clear, comprehensive plan needs to be in place for machinery restarts to protect the safety of the workers and prevent the equipment from damage.

3. Driving productivity.

To facilitate some of the new working practices it may be necessary or advantageous to change policies and procedures and/or introduce new technology in both admin and operations. In steel distribution a comparatively high proportion of operations employees are in the later stages of their careers and have never needed to acquire technological and/or IT skills. As we move forward this will need to change. Where companies have apprentices and other young employees a buddying scheme (where the young person works with the older one to help them grasp the new skills more quickly) can help to bring about change at a faster pace and in our experience leads both groups to having a much better appreciation and understanding of the others knowledge and skills. This can be a big step towards a more collaborative and mutually respectful team, which of course drives productivity. It also helps with stress issues where both parties feel they have someone to whom they can talk who will probably know and understand.

Refresher training will need to be addressed as well as training on new procedures to enable productivity to achieve its optimum potential. This will be particularly relevant to areas of the business that require social distancing.

The virus will continue to remain a risk for some time and companies will need to reconfigure site operations to keep employees safe and respond to the changing climate. Popping into work is not what it once was. Everything has changed and we need to adapt to ensure long term success in the workplace. The use of virtual technology will rise to accommodate this, and we need to take full advantage of this in order to keep moving forward. Companies now have the opportunity to rise above the crisis with a safer, more robust operation able to protect all staff and through them, the business itself.

This article was written by NASS

 

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