Occupational health practitioners will be facing a multifaceted array of coronavirus-related return-to-work challenges as we head through the autumn, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) webinar highlighted over the summer.
The webinar, ‘Health and safety in a post-Covid world: what have we learned?’ was led by Professor Andrew Curran, HSE chief scientific adviser and director of research, and respiratory physician and HSE chief medical adviser Professor David Fishwick.
Key challenges would include the re-population of worksites, decisions on the continuance or reversal of home working, how to support those who are vulnerable or extremely clinically vulnerable, how to manage interactions between the workplace and the community, and how to support and manage those with ongoing, chronic ‘long Covid’ symptoms, they argued.
Ensuring people do not become complacent about risk control measures such as social distancing could also become an issue, said Professor Fishwick. “I suspect this is going to become tougher as time goes on in terms of re-embedding these messages.”
‘Very significant’ mental health problems
Mental ill health was likely to become another intensely challenging area. “It does appear there has been a period of quiet grieving and downloading for a lot of people in this country,” said Professor Fishwick.
“The potential for the emergence of very, very significant mental ill health problems is a concern, not just in the working population of course but more widely. Certainly my experience with my own respiratory patients has been exactly that – some people who have previously have had no mental health problems at all, and certainly none that they have ever nominated to talk to me about, have had very significant issues.”
A further challenge will be how to translate protocols and procedures into behaviour change that becomes sustained and ‘sticks’, argued Professor Curran.
“One of the things that is really important is understanding behavioural change – that we aren’t just writing things down, but we are making sure that people are trained; we are making sure they are making the right decisions; making sure that they understand why they’re doing things to ensure that important issues are addressed as part of that overall process,” he said.
Impact on everyday lives
“It is fair to say that the future is going to be very different. We’ve clearly been through, and continue to go through, a crisis that is unprecedented in the impact it has had on the everyday lives of people in this country,” added Professor Curran.
“As a consequence of that learning, we will be in a very different space once Covid is in our rear-view mirror. Part of that is about pace, and the pace of activity. I think going back to the old ways of doing things will probably result in some frustration, because we have been able to do things very quickly.
“I think there are already questions about tolerance of risk, and what that looks like at a societal level, and how we have those conversations with society, so that the decisions that are made are informed by that tolerability of risk. In all of this, research is absolutely vital. There is clearly a lot we need to understand,” he said.
A recording of the full webinar can be found at https://youtu.be/FjkuUDuLWjc