It’s now a year since the World Health Organization declared a Covid-19 pandemic. IOSH asked some of their senior leaders to put the past 12 months into a global OSH perspective. Here’s how they responded to questions on what they’ve learned during the year and how they think we should begin to move out of the pandemic.

What has Covid-19 taught us?

Q. What impact has the pandemic had on your approach to managing safety, health and wellbeing at work?

Jimmy Quinn – IOSH President “My approach has become much stricter in certain areas, combined with a collaborative management style that ensures sub-contractors, principal contractors and clients are aligned. Looking forwards and thinking ‘where is the next outbreak’ or ‘how are my people’ is always at the forefront of planning.”

Louise Hosking – IOSH President Elect “I work mainly with small and medium sized companies that have fewer resources and those resources were moved into business continuity and Covid safety. The positive is that organisations now have a deeper understanding of the hierarchy of risk control and risk-based principles. Our own understanding of how to manage health risks and psychosocial risk is definitely more established and we have all had to prioritise. I’ve been in health and safety for 30 years this year and I have learnt a lot of new approaches. I’ve completed more CPD this year with lots of free access to pods and webinars.”

Dr David Gold – IOSH Vice-President “I’m no longer travelling. Everything is telephone and Zoom-based. It’s effective but I really miss face-to-face contact.”

Duncan Spencer – IOSH Head of Advice and Practice “The pandemic has heightened the focus on wellbeing and mental health in the media, in society and in all workplaces. It has been an important demonstration of the benefits that qualified and competent OSH professionals bring to their organisations.”

Dr Karen Michell – IOSH Researcher “The year has highlighted the importance of collaboration, teamwork and preparation. Endemics and pandemics (SARS, MERS) have been contained before but we failed to learn from these events, adopting an ‘it will never affect us’ attitude. As OSH professionals we need to be better prepared to manage biological hazards in the workplace. Just as one prepares for that disaster we trust will never happen at work, we need to be prepared to manage future pathogen outbreaks. What this pandemic has taught me is how important frontline workers are and how they have been taken for granted for so long from an OSH perspective. The lack of preparedness to protect these workers, who by their very nature must cope with biological exposures on a daily basis, still presents us with a major challenge.”

Q. What key learning points have you picked up in the past year? What’s worked and what hasn’t in the management of OSH in organisations around the world?

JQ “OHS practitioners have needed patience, understanding, collaboration and a team ethos. The ability of executive boards to work “blind”, especially in the construction sector, has been nulli secundus (second to none) in getting people to work, whether it be from home or on site. What hasn’t worked is the instruction for construction to remain open without proper government guidelines and support for the industry. The construction industry has been left to develop its own controls with organisations such as CLC or Build UK. This has resulted in safety measures going off in different directions.”

LH “When you have less control you have to accept you can’t plan in the same way; you have to risk assess, move forward and be prepared to adapt promptly. A key learning for me is to control what I can, make it clear where systems must be in place and let go of others. Don’t be afraid to be more agile, more adaptable and just be.”

DG “Zoom works well, providing many opportunities to reach out beyond the normal contact range and interface with many members. I believe IOSH members can provide a wealth of knowledge for the institution which should be used more.”

DS “I’ve seen that it’s possible to focus the minds of a worker population and, where there is a will and a drive to do so, lead quite a quick change in culture in terms of adopting better hygiene practices. I’ve also observed the importance of keeping messages short and simple to engage people ie ‘hands, face, space’.”

KM “Preparation is key. Those organisations that had even the basic OSH management structures in place are the ones that have fared the best. Existing structures have allowed these organisations to adapt and survive while those with no structure in place have floundered. For years it was a challenge to work from home. Companies often fought this but when pushed to the point where there was no other option, we saw that there are alternative working models. In many cases, workers have been more productive when working from home. The challenges of isolation and loneliness, however, cannot be ignored and need to be addressed and managed. The way we’ve all embraced new technology has also been a real positive. The use of video conferencing, for example, has been used effectively and I’m sure will be used more into the future.”

Q. What are you mainly focused on right now when it comes to managing and recovering from the impact of Covid-19?

JQ “The constant refreshing and developing of best practice, site specific COBR weekly meetings, thinking outside the box, communication and collaboration. All of this is key.”

LH “This varies from client to client but in respect of Covid it’s about embedding controls into the day to day. There are a lot of plates for businesses to spin to keep moving forward. As a business owner I am revaluating my own business model to provide those we serve with what they really need. We are offering training differently and talking to new clients in different parts of the world. I worry that there will be a widening OSH gap between the haves and the have-nots; those who have done well will be able to invest in what they have learnt, though we may see standards fall in smaller organisations.”

DG “A lot of Zoom-based instruction; new documentation; assisting clients in building resilience and incident managing plans.

DS “Changes that were already underway have been accelerated by Covid. For example, working from home, home shopping, use of technology. Workplaces will never be the same again. I’m hopeful there’ll be a legacy of better workplace and work equipment cleanliness, particularly in workspaces shared with the general public. The response to Covid has heightened the need to engage all managers and workers, to educate, to listen and to adapt controls. This isn’t new; it’s what a good organisation with excellent health and safety standards should do to manage all risk. I think this has shown many more organisations that such high standards can not only be achieved but that there are added business benefits from doing so.”

KM “My focus is research and I have a passion to understand how much of an impact Long Covid is going to have on workers and how organisations will manage those employees who are affected. I’m also especially keen to know how employers will do right by our health workers.”

So what happens now?

Q: What, in your view, still needs to happen in workplaces in the UK and internationally before restrictions and controls are eased and ‘normal life’ returns?

JQ “‘Normal life’ will not return as we know it, not in my opinion. Covid is here to stay. We’ll have to move on and work with Covid in our lives. Vaccination and understanding of the virus are key, but we’ll be talking about this outbreak for a generation. We must reset, develop best practice and ensure life returns as soon as we can, albeit in a controlled manner.

LH We need to ensure all countries have access to the vaccine and those organisations with supply chains that extend into developing nations will have to help. Global organisations supporting this, like the International Labour Organization, are crucial to this. We are going to have to live with infection control for a while yet and business recovery is going to be challenging because people are not the same as they were before all this. We simply have to improve on track and trace.

DG We must continue to reinforce messaging about following instructions and reducing complacency. We also need to continue to roll-out vaccinations.

DS We need to complete the national vaccination programmes. We also need to introduce vaccination policies in our workplaces which have already been present for workers exposed to other pathogens, such as Hepatitis B.

KM We need to complete the first round of vaccines. I firmly believe that we should have started the vaccines with key workers – those who kept the economy ticking over. There will be continued awareness campaigns to remind people of the need for good personal hygiene measures (washing hands, covering mouth while coughing, sneezing etc). Overcrowded working spaces need to be made a thing of the past. Employers need to review working models and continue to embrace those things that have helped us through the pandemic, such as allowing more flexible working hours, encouraging a balance between office-based and home working.

Q: How do you think countries around the world are coping? How have some countries managed to eradicate all signs and symptoms of Covid-19?

JQ As ever, the poorer countries are struggling with a lack of vaccination protocols and the World Health Organization must do more to pressure G8 countries and the global ‘family’. To protect everyone is to protect all and this isn’t happening as fast globally as in the big player economies. Some countries have moved fast. Australia and New Zealand were very strict, bringing in immediate lockdown on single positive results with no objections and complete understanding from their respective populations. A better roll-out and Covid strategy has been noticeable in countries such as Israel, with vaccine development being key.

LH I don’t think we know enough yet to be able to answer this question. As we gradually move into living with the virus we will have time to reflect and analyse this scientifically, using peer reviewed data and research.

DG Countries are not doing that well. There’s a great deal of pandemic fatigue in many countries and strong resistance to control measures. Lock-down, contact tracing, vaccination and a huge emphasis on targeted information are the keys to success.

DS This depends on national culture. Countries with a society that is generally more compliant have had better results (eg Korea), but in other countries, like the UK, our population likes to bend and break the rules if it can. It’s all about willingness to comply. It may also be due to governments’ ability to manage the truth and combat misinformation, or ‘false news’.

KM Many countries, I believe, are to seen to cope but, actually, things are looking gloomy. I’m thinking, in particular, of those countries which lack any form of social security. People have been forced not to work with limited support in place. Countries that closed their borders early and contained the transmission have coped better in terms of eradicating the disease. But what needs to be remembered is that in this globally mobile world of ours the risk of reintroducing the virus remains. We’ll have to stay vigilant.

Q: How should we learn to live and work with coronavirus? Has life changed forever and how will OSH support?

JQ We’ll do what we’ve done over the past year; we’ll go back to work and live with the virus (like we do with influenza). Covid is now another virus we have to deal with for an ever- expanding world population. OHS will now be at the forefront of businesses, especially now we’ve shown our ability to develop controls more flexibly and think outside the box.

LH Yes it has. We are never going back to what work was like before this. We will have a much more blended approach, using technology more than before. How people interact with each other and the way they use offices will change. We will have lost a lot of businesses and those that survive will look different. When things change we need to review our hazards and re-assess risk. Health and safety professionals need to go back to risk based principles and look again at new and emerging hazards. But we need to do this sensitively, with compassion, empathy and creativity. We are only going to help business back if business sees us as the enablers we can be by demonstrating modern, collaborative leadership skills. What we do now is going to be closely scrutinised for a long time to come.

DG We have to educate, raise awareness and carry out training on assessing Covid related risks, focusing on control measures. OSH has an important and growing role to play that IOSH needs to support.

DS People forget we’ve been controlling exposure to pathogens for years; this is just the latest addition to the list. OSH professionals need to get much more savvy about occupational health issues in general, with less focus on immediate physical injury events, while new techniques for managing wellbeing need to be devised and implemented. Poor mental health is preventable but our focus has been on treating the symptoms after the fact, rather than the causes. This must change; cultures in organisations have to change.

KM Based on the activities between the first and third lockdown I believe life will return to normal. The general population will not forget the impact of Covid but they will rely on the vaccination programme to allow normality to return. This will be preceded by a period of anxiety where many will fear returning to normality. We will learn to live with Covid 19 as we have with influenza. We will be vaccinated and the risk of serious health outcomes will be reduced. Mental health issues have been brought to the fore and I believe we will be managing the outcome of the impact on mental health for years to come. OSH needs to be the knowledgeable reassurer in the workplace. Continued efforts will be needed to ensure workplaces are safe and that where risk assessments are completed the biological risks are not neglected or under estimated.

Q: Finally, imagining the future, what does March 2022 look like?

JQ March 22 looks great. The virus will be under control, life will be back to normal, we roll with the punches and carry on.

LH There is going to be a bigger health and safety gap. The top tiers and successful organisations will have absorbed the new science, new ideas and embraced the technological revolution. At the other end of the supply chain there is a risk competition is going to drive down price and quality and health and safety. What we do next is massively important. We need to remember how connected we all are and we are all going to have to pay more if we value our people in the way we say we do – we have to walk the talk.”

DG There is and will continue to be a new normal. But what about the developing world and the informal sector? If we don’t get the message and resources out to everyone, there will continue to be resurgences of the virus.

DS Actually, Covid will be just one of many risks that organisations have to contend with. It’s going to be business as usual. After SARS, mask wearing in Hong Kong became a social norm if people had cold like symptoms. Will Covid drive a similar change in individual habits? We’ll see….”

KM My vision is one of workplaces with revised working models. There will be a balance between working from home and travelling to the office; and greater flexibility in working hours based on performance rather than attendance. Currently, less than 20% of workers across the world have access to OSH services and if opportunities are seized I believe this can be greatly increased. I see the value the OSH profession can bring in times of chaos and panic being recognised by management. My only fear is that we might not have retained the valuable lessons this pandemic has taught us; that is, the value of a safe and healthy working environment and the importance of valuing and supporting health workers and other key workers.