Workplace safety experts: 4 steps every office needs to take right now
Workplace safety experts share their tips for implementing new safety protocols in a post-COVID world.
As organizations strategize about their return to the office, many leaders will face a new element of culture (and compliance) they hadn’t encountered before: workplace safety. We asked Teresa Cummins, Director of Health and Safety at Port of Seattle, and Rodd Wagner, bestselling author and Forbes contributor, to share their expert tips for how traditional safety-focused industries, such as manufacturing and transportation, have succeeded in keeping employees safe.
As your organization returns or plans your return to the office, we hope these insights shed some light on how you can foster a culture of safety at your workplace.
On the unequivocal need for safety in the office
“COVID has exposed the critical importance of safety at every type of workplace, not just in manufacturing or industrial settings.”
For leaders who haven’t had to think about safety measures further than, say, loose cords under a desk, creating a culture of safety in a pandemic probably seems daunting. The good news? Your employees are already hypervigilant about safety right now.
“People are thinking about safety 24/7 nowadays, so adapting to new safety measures at the office will feel more natural,” said Rodd. “Take the example of going to the grocery store: as soon as we leave the safe environment of the car, we put a mask on. We keep a safe distance from others as we navigate the store. If we touch a door, we know to apply hand sanitizer. And so on. Safety, no matter the situation, requires self-awareness – and people are practicing self-awareness in every aspect of life right now.”
Despite its prevalence, this new safety mentality – of treating every environment like you would the deck of an aircraft carrier – should still be leaders’ primary focus as their teams return to the office.
“Employee experience begins and ends with safety; it is the most important thing an organization can do. In an industrial setting, there’s no ambiguity with injuries – if your foot gets run over, you know what went wrong. With COVID, there’s a lot of ambiguity – did I contract it at home? At work? Somewhere in between?” shared Rodd.
Ambiguity can lead to leniency, but there’s no room for leniency right now.
So, what’s ahead for organizations wanting to foster a culture of safety? Based on our experts’ advice, there are four steps every company should take – plan, communicate, listen, and act – but the details within those steps will depend heavily on the needs of your people.
Let’s get started.
Step #1 Plan
Decide on the who, what, when, where, and how’s
“As you formulate new safety protocols, engage employees at all levels and role types,” suggested Teresa. “They’re the experts on safety and hazards specific to their area, so ask them about barriers. Their insights can help you anticipate – and overcome – the challenges of implementing new safety procedures.”
As you develop new safety protocols, think through things like:
- Who is returning to the office
- What employees will need to feel safe, protected, and supported
- When employees will return, i.e. in stages, rotating staff, etc.
- Where employees will work when they’re back in the office
- How employees will physically – and safely – navigate the building
As the Port of Seattle strategized about their return to the office, they arrived at a few critical decisions:
- Bring employees back in a phased approach. The Port decided to bring back 20% of its workforce at two week intervals. This would help assess any community spread, and allow for in-office workforce expansion or contraction, as needed.
- Mitigate risks related to the office. In addition to signage reminding employees about maintaining six feet distance from others, the Port also looked at how employees move through buildings in order to establish new safety procedures, including: adopting one-directional stairways, limiting access points and entryways to map out (and manage) the flow of employees in the physical space, and so on. All of these new safety procedures were prompted (and promoted) by signage and posters throughout the Port’s buildings.
- Utilize technology to assess risks and promote safety. The Port created a communication channel specifically for employees to self-validate if they have COVID-related symptoms. If they answer yes, Teresa or a member of her health and safety team is immediately notified, and that employee is contacted for follow-up.
As you think through the aspects of safety relevant to your workplace, remember to engage your senior leaders and solicit their buy-in. Why? Our experts agreed that a culture of safety emanates from leadership. Leaders visibly masking up, gowning up, or taking the safety measure(s) you’re aiming to promote, is key to establishing workplace safety norms.
“When employees see leaders complying with safety procedures, they take those cues and follow suit. It shows that safety is a non-negotiable. These norms and behaviors not only formulate a company’s culture of safety, but a culture of compliance,” said Rodd.
Step #2 Communicate
Determine how to communicate new policy implementation
Successful workplace safety programs rely on consistent and timely communication. The Port of Seattle developed a COVID communications plan that meets employees where they are:
- On the company intranet. The Port published an online “Safe Return Playbook” outlining:
- Where to find face coverings, order hand sanitizer, and request other personal protective equipment (PPE) needs.
- How to safely navigate facilities, including designated entryways, stairwells, elevators, and workspaces.
- Proper protocol for break rooms, common spaces, and other day-to-day elements of the office experience.
Weekly updates and new safety protocols as COVID-19 continues to evolve.
- On virtual calls. The Port hosts live town hall meetings where employees can get answers to their safety-related questions.
- On the frontlines. Not all employees spend their time online. For those employees, the Port has distributed hard copies of the playbook or made tablets available in break spaces.
“Instill confidence in your employees,” Rodd said. “Empower them to understand that they have control over the situation – and their exposure to COVID-19 – if they follow the safety procedures that have been put in place.”
Step #3 Listen
Create channels for feedback and reporting safety concerns
Two-way communication about safety is key. Create and clearly communicate a channel for employees to communicate about hazards or safety issues to leadership. It can be as easy as an employee submits a photo and receives a notification when the issue has been addressed.
“Having another employee intervene on your behalf – and call out those risks – may prevent an injury. With this safety mindset, we’re fostering a culture of having each other’s back.”
Teresa noted that safety compliance also requires peer-to-peer accountability. “At the Port of Seattle, we have a 200% Accountability Program. That means I’m accountable for myself, as well as the person I’m working closely with. Your focus may be on one particular task but you may miss the nearby hazard that can potentially cause serious harm. Having another employee intervene on your behalf – and call out those risks – may prevent an injury or risk. With this safety mindset, we’re fostering a culture of having each other’s back. ”
Step #4 Act
Facilitate ongoing communication and address the concerns voiced by your employees to help them feel supported
To support employees during the pandemic, the Port created a new paid leave program specific to COVID-related challenges. For instance, if an employee needs time off for child care, he or she could take that time without having to draw from their regular paid time off (PTO). Or, if an employee contracts COVID, he or she could use this new leave benefit instead of exhausting sick time.
“Operationally, this new program hasn’t been without its challenges – namely managing staffing issues – but right now, we’re focused on employee experience. We want our employees to feel safe, protected, and supported,” said Teresa.
“There’s a huge overlap between the strategies that keep people safe – good sleep, good work-life balance, working at a sustainable pace, being deliberate about collaboration – and the best strategies for making people happy,” added Rodd.
“Those employees, managers, and leaders who crack the code on keeping those around them physically healthy through this pandemic are also your best ambassadors for employee experience.”
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