“I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.”
“We have to prepare for the new normal.”
You’ve heard people say both of those statements.
So, as more people get vaccinated for COVID-19 and illness and death rates drop, are businesses working toward getting back to normal or should they be preparing for the “new normal”?
Truth is, it’s somewhere in between.
COVID-19 has changed businesses in some ways permanently.
But the situation continues to evolve.
When it comes to an employer’s “duty of care” to employees, the situation has changed and will continue to change as the lessons learned from the pandemic are incorporated into the business world.
- 74% of professionals expect remote work to become standard
- 97% of employees don’t want to return to the office full-time
- 61% of employees prefer being fully remote, and
- Remote work is the biggest draw for top talent.
How can employers address employee safety with the increase of off-site, at-home work?
Wearables used more
The U.S. doesn’t track injury statistics for lone workers.
But there’s one thing about lone workers we all now know: There are more of them today than there were just a couple of years ago.
Lone workers face numerous hazards:
- violence, including by the public, particularly if money exchange is involved
- working at heights
- slip and trip hazards when working at ground level
- using hazardous chemicals
- operating machines and equipment, and
Protection for some of these workers has been around for decades and has evolved.
A lone cashier at a gas station, convenience store or fast-food restaurant may have access to a so-called “panic button” under the counter when facing a robber wielding a gun.
The purpose: Contact an emergency service company or local authorities.
But what about the cell tower technician, working alone? There’s no emergency button on the tower or at its base in case of a fall.
Smart phones and smart watches now bridge that gap, as do other electronic devices.
And the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated development of more apps for contact tracing.
Just turn on a contact-tracing app and you’ll start receiving updates on possible COVID-19 exposure.
Contact tracing is also available via radio frequency ID wearables for all crew members, such as wristbands.
How this works: The wristband vibrates when other employees who wear the band come within six feet of the wearer.
That’s the functionality for COVID-19 contact tracing.
These types of products and apps also can measure vital signs such as body temperature, breathing rate and heart rate. Therefore, an employer can track conditions to see if a work environment is safe for employees.
While the pandemic has created changes, such as use of electronic monitoring, some things stay the same.
One is an employer’s obligation to employees when they work at home. The employer has to ensure the employee can work safely.
Many employees may feel they are safer in their homes than in a traditional office or other workplace.
However, the risk of facing an active shooter doesn’t disappear because the employee is working in their home.
Statistics show 85% of workplace homicides in the U.S. occur in cases involving robbery, theft or trespassing.
Home burglaries are more likely to occur during the daytime. Reason: The perpetrator believes the home is unoccupied.
However, if they find someone at home when they thought it was empty, a burglar may turn violent.
Home invasions are another possibility. In this scenario, a home or family is targeted, often because of perceived wealth. These incidents turn violent more often than burglaries.
This is a topic that needs to be discussed with employees working at home.
Discussing potential workplace violence can be uncomfortable for some employees when the scenario includes their work site.
It becomes even more uncomfortable for them to think about when the targeted location becomes their own home.
Do employees have to arm their homes to the teeth?
No. But there are things they should do.
Employees working at home need to be aware of their surroundings.
People who’ve been working from home during the pandemic often say the quiet atmosphere allows them to become completely focused on their work. Remind employees not to be so focused on one thing that they lose awareness of their surroundings.
Total Worker Health
Survey after survey shows most employees who went from on-location to working from home want to continue the set-up either 100% or on a hybrid basis.
Employees mention flexibility, work-life balance and getting rid of their commute as benefits to working from home.
But just as we should remind them about awareness of their surroundings while working at home, employees also need to be cognizant of the potential negatives to the arrangement.
The Center for Intelligent Environments surveyed almost 1,000 employees, mostly office workers, to find the impacts on health and productivity from working from home.
Results show the average level of physical and mental well-being decreased, compared with the period before employees started working at home.
Fortunately, years before the pandemic significantly increased the at-home workforce, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) created a program, Total Worker Health (TWH), that combined workplace safety with employee health.
According to NIOSH, “Total Worker Health is defined as policies, programs and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness-prevention efforts to advance worker well-being.”
In TWH, employers are encouraged to develop their own programs to benefit workplace safety and overall employee health.
Example: HealthPartners, a 26,000-person healthcare employer serving six states, established Be Well.
Be Well programming has shifted due to the pandemic. Here are some examples:
- Wellbeats, an online fitness app, to encourage being active at home when gyms are closed
- More emphasis on resilience practices
- A resource page to combat burnout and help connect with each other
- Webinars addressing pandemic fatigue, grief and psychological self-care, and
- Working closely with Diversity and Inclusion teams.
Be Well will continue to evolve to navigate the pandemic until a new normal is clear.
This is an excellent representation of the evolving duty of care employers need to address due to the pandemic.