Leaders are concerned with more than heat stress this season. Scott DeBow shares safety advice to guide your company through uncertainty.

Preventing heat stress has been a major priority for leaders of manufacturing, construction and other industrial worksites for a long time. What’s different this year, given COVID-19? Accommodating new gear — gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), for example — is obviously going to be challenging, but that’s only one half of the story. Handling the powerful emotional and psychological impacts of our lingering global pandemic is the other.

Of course, both elements, the physical and the mental, will have implications for heat safety as well as other safety risks. So let’s talk about what you can do to maintain a positive work environment — and why safety, rather than standing in the way, will support you in that effort.

New workforce realities to confront

With social distancing protocols and other measures still in effect in many states, organizational leaders must recognize that they’re returning to work with an altogether different workforce right now. By some estimates, anywhere between 22 and 35 percent of the U.S. workers experienced symptoms of depression during this pandemic. So the reality is, you’re going back to work with an unusually fragmentary, disconnected, potentially disengaged and in some cases even despondent pool of workers.

Clearly, you need to take meaningful steps to change that situation — or else your safety and productivity metrics, not to mention key milestones and a whole lot else, are going to fall off because of it.

I think it both starts with and ends in safety, and I’m going to tell you why.

covid-19 workforce safety engagement

Connecting the dots: COVID-19, workplace safety and workforce engagement

Studies have conclusively demonstrated the link between workplace safety and employee engagement. For example, less engaged workers have been shown to have 37 percent higher rates of absenteeism, account for 49 percent more accidents and 60 percent more errors and defects than their more engaged peers.

And the influence is reciprocal: Anyone who’s seen it firsthand will tell you the negative impact unsafe worksites have on employee morale. Whereas when safety practices are ship-shape, workers move about with noticeable pride.

In the context of COVID-19, demonstrating your commitment to safety sends a bold message to your workforce, will help build confidence and can act as an important counterweight to disengagement.

This even applies to heat stress specifically. Are you aware, for example, that improvements in engineering controls for ventilation and air circulation systems can address key risks associated both with heat stress and with COVID? If you’re undertaking return-to-work risk assessments right now, you’d better take things like that into account.

Another note: Deploying contact tracers at your worksite may make for good optics — it signals, “This is a safe place to return to work” — it’s fundamentally a reactive approach. I’m not saying it isn’t an effective administrative control in the event of an exposure. What I am saying is that leveraging engineering controls — for example, improving air exchange or erecting barriers and dividers to enforce social distancing — will actually increase the reliability of your health and safety systems, while also decreasing the likelihood of exposures.

Suggestions for industrial leaders

A few pointers and resources to share before I sign off:

Finally, be sure to communicate all of this — including guidance around potential COVID-19 exposures — to everyone in your organization. This communication component is crucial. In one recent survey, for example, 45 percent of Teamsters union members said they had not been educated on what to do if they think they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. That lack of education and communication translates to feelings of vulnerability, which in turn lowers the morale of your workforce — and worse, escalates the risks of new infections at your worksite.

This has been an unusual year, and we all have to approach workplace risks accordingly. It’s time to act strategically, to act prudently — and perhaps most importantly of all, to take action today.

scott debow randstad
Scott DeBow

Scott DeBow, CSP/ARM, Safety Practice Leader, Randstad US
Scott DeBow, a board-certified safety professional, serves as the safety practice leader for Randstad North America, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Randstad Holding N.V., a €23.7 billion global provider of HR services. He has 20 years of progressive leadership experience in Occupational Safety & Health and a military veteran. Following his service, his experience in both preventative medicine and occupational health served employers to find alignment between the shared value of injury prevention and business improvement. He is devoted to continual improvement and development of safety leadership opportunities both inside Randstad, and across multiple industries.

Additional information about Scott: Trained in ISO 45001 Certification, Professional Member of the American Society of Safety Professionals: Georgia Chapter and Southwest Chapters. Serves as liaison to the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) and NIOSH: National Occupational Research Agenda (NIOSH/NORA) for Contingent Labor Workforce, Executive Program in Safety Management: 2017 ASSP