Health And Safety Finally Gets Its Due, But Leaders Need To Play A Bigger Role

As we face a third and potentially more severe wave of this relentless virus, it is hard to imagine that it has had any positive impact on our overall health and wellbeing. However, amidst all the devastation it has left in its wake, COVID, it seems, might have given complacency about workplace health and safety the comeuppance it deserves.

WSPS’s second annual Health and Safety Leadership Survey provides an interesting comparison of where organizations stood on the importance of health and safety before 2019 and their perspective one year into the crisis.

The survey, completed by 805 respondents, just over double the number who responded in 2019, represented a cross-section of industries and organizations of all sizes from across Canada.

Respondents fell into five categories based on the level of development of health and safety in their workplaces.

Leading – Health and safety is treated as a strategic priority. Information is reported publicly, and board decisions take into account the impact on health and safety.
Proactive - Active board discussion and support aimed at enhancing management of health and safety.
Managing - Focused on management of day-to-day health and safety.
Reactive - Focused on addressing health and safety issues as they arise. Focus remains on incident rates.
Start of Journey - Starting to understand what health and safety involves; focused on incident management.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of 2020 respondents indicated that the pandemic has elevated the importance of health and safety in their organizations.

  • 87% of Leading and Proactive organizations say this is the case
  • 72% of those at the Reactive and Start of Journey stages agree

There was universal agreement (99%) that health and safety will be critical to reopening and that it is linked to improved organizational performance (96%).

Perhaps, one of the most important stories this year’s results tell is that a focus on workplace health and safety mitigated the impact of COVID for many employers. This is a positive shift and, hopefully, a turning point, but this realization came a bit too late for some. Due to their commitment prior to the pandemic, 76% of organizations with a strong safety culture reported low or reduced infection rates compared to only 41% of respondents in less developed categories.

The top three business challenges that respondents faced were crisis response, preventing injury and illness, and mental health. Mental Health also topped the list of emerging issues.

  1. Mental health
  2. Stress management
  3. Continued infection control of the pandemic
  4. Pandemic management overall
  5. Remote work

Nearly half of Canadians polled in December 2019 indicated that their mental health has deteriorated due to the pandemic. One in ten said they have experienced an increase in suicidal thoughts. Despite this, the number of Survey respondents who said that mental harms prevention was part of their overall OHS program, just like physical health and safety, mysteriously dropped to 81% in 2020 - down 13% from the previous year.

Dr. Bill Howatt, of Howatt HR says that this may be due to the intense focus on physical safety in response to the virus. He also suggests that many employers might underestimate the psychological toll on employees if they don’t see a corresponding increase in claims.

Respondents who indicated that leadership support is a key driver for improving health and safety jumped to 51% in 2020 - an increase of 32%. Leading (99%) and Proactive (95%) respondents said leaders in their organizations are very involved. In the Reactive and Start of Journey categories, the numbers dropped to 45% and 57% respectively and most indicated that lack of leadership commitment is a barrier to improvement.

No doubt, most employers have been spread thin in responding to this interminable crisis. To protect the health and safety of employees, customers, and the communities they serve, leaders have had to respond to constantly changing rules, regulations, and safety protocols, all while trying to keep their businesses on track through multiple lockdowns and, for some, layoffs and permanent closures.

One respondent shared that while they had prepared a pandemic policy for H1N1, it took significant work to ensure they had the necessary control measures for COVID, and it was difficult to get the information they needed from public health authorities.

WSPS Vice President of Field Operations, Shannon Jones, says they have observed these challenges in their interactions with Ontario workplaces. “It is very confusing for employers. There are so many levers being used by the government, and it is difficult for them to keep track.”

Remote work also made the list of emerging issues. Most workplaces adjusted to working remotely in the early days of the pandemic and many have realized the benefits of doing so. This realization has accelerated the shift to more flexible work arrangements. Some employers are opting to continue with a remote work model. Others will return to physical workspaces as before, and many organizations expect to adopt a hybrid model.

No matter which of these options applies, employers will need to adjust how they manage health and safety moving forward. There are still many unknowns. WSPS Senior Account Manager, Jack Minacs, says he has received lots of questions from employers about how the legislation applies to home offices, in addition to queries about inspections, ergonomics, mental health, dealing with isolation, employee rights, and work refusals.

There is no question that COVID has changed us forever, and change is rarely easy, particularly when it happens under duress. However, there is some solace in knowing that more organizations now recognize the importance of workplace health and safety. Hopefully, this trend continues, and leaders who have been sitting on the fence use the lessons learned over the past year to create healthier and safer workplaces. Not just because they believe it is a box they must check to reopen, but because they now understand how lack of commitment can negatively affect the health and wellbeing of employees, customers, and the communities they serve.

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