Coronavirus is an opportunity, but also a risk, for occupational health


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As the scale of our return-to-work challenges become clear, the Covid era is likely to result in an increased expectation that employers will proactively support employee health, argues Dr Paul Williams. This is an opportunity for occupational health, but also brings with it the potential for longer-term reputational risk.

Protecting people from Covi-19 is going to get tougher, and the role of occupational health will be more important than ever. We have now entered a new phase of the coronavirus pandemic, as we begin to work towards a phased end to lockdown and eventually a post-Covid world.

About the author

Dr Paul Williams is division president of MAXIMUS UK and a former president of SOM (the Society of Occupational Medicine)

The hunt for a reliable antibody test continues, while vaccine trials are starting to show promise. The government has announced the prospect of 30 million vaccines being made available by September if trials continue to succeed, opening the possibility of coming closer to a long-term resolution to the crisis this year.

But, while there is good news as cases continue to decline and lockdown restrictions start to lift, we are a long way from returning to the sense of normality that we crave. There are plenty of difficult days ahead and every single individual and business has vital responsibilities to ensure we do not fall at this hurdle and risk a resurgence of infections.

Against this backdrop, sound occupational health advice is more important now than it has ever been. Where historically OH has sometimes been positioned as peripheral to core business operations, it can’t be anymore.

Employers are looking to us to sort fact from fiction and translate government guidance into practical, specific steps for their unique circumstances. With the reopening of the economy underway, nobody can afford to wait for a breakthrough that may be years away.

We may be in a wholly unique situation – but tried and tested approaches to occupational health are needed now more than ever.

Managing the return to work

The return to work post coronavirus will be the biggest and most complex transition of people’s working environments in modern history.

Businesses across the country are beginning an unprecedented mission to redesign offices, operations, HR processes, and management practices to stay safe against a virus that for now remains incurable.

We have seen already the incredible ways in which businesses and employees have quickly adapted to a working from home environment. Phasing out lockdown will be much harder, and will require that positive, flexible, and resilient mentality to continue.

In most cases, staff will have to continue with two-metre social distancing and strict hygiene controls. Some companies are looking at how technology can help staff adapt to this, such as providing smart watches that alert you when you are too close to someone.

Our business, for example, has been advising companies on various solutions – from splitting teams into cohorts to limiting numbers on a site on staggered work days. For many office-based employees, working from home will be a long-term set-up.

One thing that is important for all businesses, regardless of sector, is following the hierarchy of control methods.

Every method we use to limit the risk of the virus propagating can be sorted into a list in order of importance: elimination, substitution, segregation, engineering controls, administrative controls, and – lastly, after all of the above, the provision of protective equipment. Implementing measures in this sequence is crucial to ensuring they are as effective as possible.

People coming back to work will have been affected by the pandemic in different ways, whether through sickness, financial issues, the loss of loved ones or the juggling of work and home life. Employee wellbeing strategies will need to be robust and responsive to these needs throughout the remainder of the crisis.

Never have employers taken on such a high level of responsibility for the health of their employees. It is vital that employers risk-assess their staff and their susceptibility to the virus. It is the best way of protecting the most vulnerable, identifying those least at risk who can support more with essential operations that cannot be done at home, and keeping people healthy and reassured.

Looking further ahead, the Covid era is likely to result in an increased expectation that employers will proactively support employee health. The longer-term reputational risks of not doing so are becoming clear. Occupational health professionals must be on hand to support this transition and help businesses upskill and adapt.

There is no ‘rulebook’, only guidance

This situation is unprecedented, and most of these measures are dependent on employees voluntarily complying with them. Guidance is challenging to enforce. As the expert voice in the room on health matters, we must help employers speak clearly and with authority about the steps being taken.

Some people are fearful of leaving their homes and risking infection. Others are frustrated with lockdown and have started breaking the guidelines. Both groups need to be reassured about what is happening and why they are being asked to adhere to measures.

Government guidelines will not explain how to respond to a staff member who is experiencing significant mental health issues as a result of lockdown, or the more precise details of how to design your office layout. It falls to occupational health – those uniquely placed to bring health expertise in a working environment – to help the business community respond to an unpredictable, frequently changing crisis.

As the occupational health sector, we need to make sure we are at the heart of the conversation. Business restart planning will involve operational decisions that have typically sat outside the scope of occupational health. Employee health is now a vital part of how businesses manage risk and continue operations, and we need to help business leaders adapt to that reality.

It is easy for optimists to jump on positive news and those more fearful to react to every scare story. That is equally the case for business leaders as it is for employees. It is on us, the professionals, to act as the calm authority and work with employers to keep as many people safe as possible.


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