How the OSH profession responded to COVID-19 around the world

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the way people work around the world. But OSH professionals have risen to the challenge, supporting businesses and their employees in their time of need.

We spoke with OSH leaders in different parts of the world to get their views on the challenges faced, how they have overcome them and the changes they’ve made which look set to become a permanent feature in workplaces where they are.

The OSH leaders are: Edward Debrah, Managing Director of ED Consults Ltd in Ghana; Jason Maitland, Corporate Health, Safety, Security, Environmental and Sustainability Manager at Massy Wood in Trinidad and Tobago; Professor Vincent Ho, Professor of Practice at Hong Kong Polytechnic University; Mary-ann Emmanuel-Ameh, Head of Health, Safety and Environment at Stockgap Fuels in Nigeria; and Dr Neelesh Sogani, Corporate Manager-HSE at Zawawi Powertech Engineering in Oman.

What have been the main challenges that Covid-19 has created in your location?

Edward Debrah: Informal sector job collapses, caused by lockdowns, posed a major challenge as the digital economy has not evolved in Ghana. Most people who do ‘hand-to-mouth’ jobs suffered. This brought about hunger and mental health and wellbeing challenges among others.

In addition, lots of people were hesitant in taking the vaccine because of several conspiracy theories making waves in the media.

Vincent Ho: The uncertainties related to the local government’s response action to the infection control, and the unpredictability of the infection pathways, have remained the main challenges for management.

The government’s response actions include mandatory quarantine for close contacts of infected cases, restricted movement for mandatory testing in buildings with confirmed cases, restricted restaurant operating hours, social distancing and others. These restrictions imposed by the government may result in certain staff unable to report to duty if they live in the restricted buildings or are associated with an infected case. The situation can be worsened if the infected case is a staff member.

Mary-ann Emmanuel-Ameh: Our first major challenge was business continuity as operations were shut down for 48 hours. Next was how to run operations without physical contact to reduce risk of transmission, especially considering the interface between operators and customers, product vessel receipt, ship-to-shore inspection interface and construction work. These were critical activities to consider while ensuring business continuity.

Neelesh Sogani: Business got badly impacted due to lockdowns and the added cost of control measures including testing, quarantining and vaccination. It also impacted productivity.

The most challenging part is the situation created around families/corporates is causing a lot of fear, uncertainty and anxiety. Add social isolation, disrupted work and family routines, cabin fever, and economic instability, and it is understandable that our mental health is suffering

Jason Maitland: The main challenges have come from balancing health and safety and economic progress. While the healthcare sector has managed admirably, challenges exist among those who do not follow health protocols.

Other than the loss of lives, arguably the greatest tests have been lockdowns and other restrictions which have been enacted to curb the spread of the virus as well as preventing the healthcare sector from being overwhelmed.

How have you managed to overcome these challenges?

VH: Local transmission of the Omicron variant at the end of December led to the tightening of social distancing measures by the Hong Kong government. The Corporation took immediate proportional measures to protect the workforce and to ensure business continuity.

Besides encouraging staff to take the booster vaccine, the Corporation has strengthened the social distancing measures, such as avoiding large group gatherings and using online conference facilities to replace unessential face-to-face meetings and activities. In addition, staff canteens have restricted each table to two people and the recreation club closed.

The business continuity plan was revised to cater for potential scenarios of significant workforce absenteeism and a strategy has been adopted in using lateral flow test kits to control the risk of virus transmission in critical operational areas, such as the Operation Control Centre.

NS: Our approach was agile management and we were quick enough to identify the challenges and take actions accordingly. We were mainly focusing on proactive actions such as six-point protocol checks – temperature, symptoms, SPO2 monitoring, hygiene protocol, etc).

We also contained our employees from the rest of the world by developing a quarantine centre to monitor people who travelled or had out-of-work exposures and we had daily monitoring, self-declaration, a change in work strategy and work from home was introduced.

ED: The approach included access to relevant information from IOSH webinars, the World Health Organisation and Ghana Health Service. Much of this was translated into local languages and shared with informal sector workers on radio and television to educate them on COVID-19 and the need to vaccinate, while debunking all myths and conspiracy theories about vaccine hesitancy in a bid to reduce spread and to comply with protocols while practicing personal hygiene.

ME: Practically, we started early awareness and intervention measures, and kept reviewing this as new information unfolded. Policy, protocols, and crisis management team were emplaced.

The time employees spent on site and at our headquarters was reduced by 40 per cent, giving the opportunity for staff rotation. And workers and seafarers only worked or sailed after a negative COVID-19 test. We also leveraged the technology we have for training and mental wellbeing programmes.

JM: Many organisations have utilised a risk-based approach with defined escalation and de-escalation criteria. These methods have combined several strategies designed to reduce exposure, limit potential spread, detect the virus and ensure business continuity. Supporting this have been frequent communication to the workforce as to the risks, the measures the organisations have been taking and the need for employees to exercise personal responsibility both in their private lives as well as in the workplace.

Remote working has been deployed successfully, providing flexibility around work and personal life. Despite this, employees have continued to raise concerns around mental health as they attempt to cope in such a dynamic environment. This has prompted a renewed focus on health (physical and mental) and this is likely to remain in coming years.

What changes that you have made to the way you and colleagues work do you think will remain in place permanently?

JM: Likewise, remote working (in various forms) is certain to remain as well as digitalisation, which has supported this. Areas such as ergonomics and industrial hygiene have also seen increased focus throughout the pandemic. Measures enacted have certainly been aligned to engaging and collaborating with influencing being the outcome.

ME: One major change that was emplaced and will remain is leveraging more on technology to get the work done. Another is the value on OSH professionals by top management in strategic decision-making.

NS: Changes made in the organisation are very helpful in the long run, not only to tackle pandemics but also to improve productivity. One example is employees being given the freedom to work from home, which helped us in increasing productivity and reducing operational expenses.

The use of technology for online meetings helped reach across the world with a reduction in work exposures and no time wastage in commuting. In my opinion, these changes will be long-lasting and helped organisations to think from a different perspective.

VH: We have become vigilant in practicing personal hygiene since the onset of the pandemic. This will stay for years before most of the society go back to the old care-free days. Timely reporting of sickness related to infectious diseases and routine cleaning with disinfectants are likely to remain in place permanently. Other measures such as masking and social distancing are likely to ease off when the pandemic subdues.

ED: Introduction of COVID-19 protocols into the workspace, hybrid working programme, social distancing and improved personal hygiene are but a few of the changes made. And provision of more high-quality healthcare facilities coupled with associated well-trained workers, access to relevant information on primary health care will not stop.

Most importantly, education on lifestyle changes to reduce risk of contracting underlying ailments like hypertension, asthma, chronic heart and kidney diseases will continue to be intensified.

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Marcus Boocock
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