In his first week in office, the new President of the United States Joe Biden signed an executive order for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue revised guidance to employers on workplace safety related to the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s a move that places employee health front and centre of plans to combat the virus’s spread and is a marked change in direction from the previous administration. It’s ramifications will have an effect way beyond the life of the pandemic.
The initial mandate for OSHA focuses on mitigating and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces. The guidelines do not expressly create any new legal obligations (they could come at a review on March 4) but do outline guidance for best practice; there’s also a reminder to employers that they already have enforceable rules under existing federal regulations. Among those is the requirement to provide a workplace free from recognised hazards. COVID-19 is certainly one of those.
This is a forthright step from the new administration, and one that sets in motion a course to what is being dubbed the ‘next normal’ – a world in which the pandemic has shaped part of the landscape but has not defined the territory. For the US in particular, it’s a chance to right some wrongs. Throughout the first wave in the summer of 2020, its manufacturing industries – and in particular, its meat packing sector – came in for heavy criticism.
Allegations of malpractice and ignorance were born out by some alarming statistics, among those the finding that the meat packing industry was responsible for 8% of all new infections during the virus’s peak in 2020. Its impact was felt not only by the organisations itself, but on the wider communities in which its employees lived. The magnitude of responsibility upon organisations was underscored further when several plants were forced to shut.
It is a situation nobody wanted, but one that was summed up perfectly by American epidemiologist David Michaels when he said that: “Workplace exposures play an important role in driving the pandemic in the US. If we don’t make workplaces safe, it will be difficult to stop the pandemic, save lives and reshape the economy.” It will also be impossible to return to work in a world where employees are wary and scared. Trust in employers is high capital in the next normal.
Necessity is the mother of innovation
They say that necessity is the mother of innovation; well, there’s nothing like a global crisis to create necessity. By Q2 2020 the majority of office-based workforces across the world were working remotely. Entire industries were scrambling to reimagine the way they worked; it was chaotic. It was also the forerunner to a brave new world, in which a recalibration of priorities has put employee wellbeing top of the agenda.
It’s worth noting that at no other point in history would we be having this discussion (the last 20 years notwithstanding). Technology that wasn’t available as recently as the mid-90s has enabled us to adapt quickly, to mobilise workforces and will adequately protect those who’s working conditions require them to work in close proximity to one another. It means that in the medium to long-term the virus shouldn’t pose a threat, provided appropriate measures are taken. It also means that the relationship between employee wellbeing and productivity will be better defined and easier to manage. There is still a long way to go.
“It’s imperative that organisations adapt their operations if they’re to succeed in the future,” says EmpiricAI’s Salman Chaudhary. “Being set up for a world that is both recalibrated and recalibrating will leave you at a competitive disadvantage. We must take seriously the short to medium term threat of the virus with a long-term view on the health, safety and wellbeing of our workforces. The time to act is now.”
The perfect storm
Chaudhary is right. At around the same time Joe Biden was signing his executive order, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was taking a measured stance against Government back benchers calling for a timeline to ease lockdown restrictions. Despite the rapid speed of the UK’s vaccination programme, Johnson remained implacable under pressure, stating that lockdown would only be eased once it was irreversible – a clear indication that the UK has to be on top of the pandemic before life can return to normal. That includes businesses.
The rhetoric from both sides of the Atlantic is a timely nudge in the back for organisations that are not preparing for that future. Both Johnson and Biden are unrepentant in their desire to restabilise their countries and their economies. They are clear in their assertions that their nations – and indeed the rest of the world – cannot entertain yet another surge in infections. At the same time, COVID-19 has sped up the transition to digitisation, and in presenting an opportunity to do so, is giving organisations the chance to get future ready ahead of time.
“Digital solutions have to be in place not just for COVID-19, but for many other reasons,” Chaudhary adds. “Risks are part and parcel of running an organisation, of the industrial world and of everyday life. The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the need to manage those better, to plan operations better and to be prepared and ready for the unexpected.”
EmpiricAI has been at the sharp-end of those preparations. Its WorkSafe Analytics solution uses AI-powered Computer Vision technology to monitor work spaces, giving real-time information on a host of COVID safety parameters. Used effectively in offices, plants, factories and sites to detect occupancy levels, analyse hotspots and manage adherence to PPE, it ultimately allows organisations to make real-time adjustments that protect staff and keep businesses open.
In respect of Johnson and Biden’s aims, it is technologies like these that offer the best hope for a safe return to work in the long term. “If you look at the OSHA guidelines in particular, it’s asking for a coordinator to be responsible for implementing a plan for COVID-19 safety,” Chaudhary says. “It’s asking for hazard assessments to be made regularly and for measures that mitigate the spread to be put in place. Doing so efficiently and effectively without proper monitoring and without data is an uphill battle – and one that you probably won’t win.”
It’s a canny observation, and one that scales. Offices of five will have a far easier time of monitoring and implementing measures than an industrial plant of 500 or even 50 will. There is also no getting away from the fact that smarter businesses can and will operate simply. When it comes to building a company for the ‘next normal’, that’s an imperative.
“The steps we take now are as much for the next 10 years as they are for the next 10 months,” Chaudhary concludes. “Respective Governments are demanding more of employers. Employees are demanding more employers. And they are right to. We have to learn lessons from the pandemic, restore faith and confidence in our workforces and place them at the heart of the organisation. One of the best ways we can do that, and to establish the next normal, is through technology.”
Learn more about WorkSafe Analytics.