Operational Risks and COVID-19
As the world adjusts to the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is certain – no company has been spared from the impact of a national shutdown and global business disruption. Equally, very few companies had included pandemic response of the type required in their business interruption plans. Spread of infection aided by our globally connected economy along with swift government actions allowed no time for companies to prepare or implement -- as a result, the collective business world could only react.
Those reactions – our responses to the pandemic – not only have businesses shifting operations in ways that had not been imagined previously but has had a profound effect on how organizations will operate going forward. Many companies have deviated from their normal operations, deviations both large and small.
Any deviation from the norm can mean new hazards that are not considered in an organization’s existing risk assessments and subsequent management. That matters, whether you are among the estimated 75 million Americans working from home or an essential worker who must remain on the job. And as businesses move to reopen, resuming direct contact with customers and between employees, risks are exacerbated for both employees and customers.
Risks to employees
Keeping employees safe during a pandemic is of paramount concern. With COVID-19, it is tempting to focus on the virus itself as the sole source of risk. However, the indirect risks associated with the pandemic are of equal concern, depending on your business.
Staffing levels are just one example of how a simple change can greatly impact an organization’s risk exposure. Operational risk assessments pre-pandemic were designed with optimal staffing levels in mind – the right number of people with the right skills.
When staffing levels are altered those changes often can lead to increased injuries when there aren’t enough resources to perform a task safely or when asked to take on new responsibilities. For example, a restaurant moving from dine-in service to delivery may require some employees to now drive – a job task requiring specific skills.
The best approach is to evaluate daily your operational risks based on actual staffing levels. Pay special attention to the following:
- Tasks that involve significant manual handling: if this task was typically spread across two or three employees, it is unrealistic to expect one employee to manage it alone, and it could be causing significant harm to the body.
- Lone worker scenarios: with potentially reduced staffing levels this may be a new risk not present previously.
- Activities to be completed within a limited time frame: time-sensitive tasks that were set up for a certain number of workers may need adjusting to fit the lower staff levels. Otherwise, employees could experience fatigue quickly, resulting in decreased productivity and higher risk of injury. For example, production lines working at half the staffing should be altered to accommodate the number of people working.
No matter what changes you make to your operations, examine the skills required and new hazards stemming from the change. Review carefully tasks for any new operations and perform a skills-based risk assessment to identify new hazards, including increased control measures. What new skills are required? Do your employees need additional training for those tasks? Have new control measures, such as personal protective equipment, been added?
Also, take care not to force fit employees to new tasks. For instance, being able to drive does not make someone a suitable driver. Screen employees to ensure they have the right qualities and skills to match the job.