Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the need to stay safe has been the only certainty. Businesses have endured economic upheaval, shifting goalposts and swiftly changing guidance. Even as we exit lockdown, the way forward remains frustratingly unclear.

Despite the pandemic’s unpredictability, we’re not powerless to plan ahead. The wider impact of the virus on our workplaces is coming into sharper focus – and those insights can help us build more resilient safety practices.

Ian Hatherley, Business Director at Southalls, says: ‘For more than a year, businesses have been required to take a reactive approach to health and safety, following strict government guidelines to protect employees and the public. Many companies have struggled to set forward strategy. As restrictions ease and we understand more about COVID-19’s lasting effects on attitudes and work routines, we can shape safety programmes that tackle both current priorities and future challenges.’

Best practice is constantly evolving, and the pandemic has significantly accelerated the pace of change. While there’s no post-COVID crystal ball, intelligent predictions and a proactive mindset can help companies take back control of occupational health, safety and compliance.

Avoiding COVID-19 complacency 

COVID-19 controls will be in place for many months – perhaps years – to come. Without doubt, the pandemic ramped up customer and employee expectations about cleanliness and hygiene, but as more of the population is vaccinated, complacency and diminishing standards could pose fresh dangers. The HSE will continue to perform spot checks and inspections, so ensure risk assessments, staff training and infection prevention measures remain up to date.

Health and safety for hybrid teams

The concept of the ‘workplace’ has changed forever, with many staff balancing hours at home and onsite. Remote workers have specific health and safety needs, so make sure you’re providing ongoing support. Begin with a workstation assessment to confirm that your employee’s monitor, keyboard, furniture and surroundings are promoting healthy habits. You should also maintain regular contact with lone workers to address any emerging physical or mental health concerns.

Safety through technology

With increased HSE scrutiny on due diligence and reporting, smart safety management technology can be your biggest post-COVID compliance ally. By creating an online hub of all H&S processes, documents and data, you can confidently deal with and capture requirements, such as risk assessments, cleaning routines and equipment checks. Information is instantly available for inspections and accessible 24/7 to employees, wherever they’re based.

Support for workers with delayed treatment

With the NHS forced to drastically reduce services throughout 2020, the pandemic’s knock-on effect on non-COVID care is now fully coming to light. During the UK’s three lockdowns, millions of hospital treatments were postponed or cancelled, and millions of patients put off seeking care for existing or new health concerns. The delay could trigger a surge in employee illness and injury, increasing staff absence, occupational therapy and health screening or surveillance requirements. Employers should revisit their workplace risk assessments with vulnerable colleagues in mind, and review sick leave, fitness for work and return to work policies.

Increased mental health awareness 

The COVID-19 crisis has taken a severe toll on employee mental wellbeing through increased workload, isolation, bereavement, financial concerns and family issues. Research by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) reveals that, even before the pandemic, job-linked stress, depression or anxiety was responsible for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost in 2018/19. Workplace mental health issues also influence staff turnover, ‘presenteeism’ and poor engagement.

Encouragingly, many businesses now offer some form of mental health assistance such as specialist programmes, helplines or awareness training using online H&S software. This support demonstrates empathy for current workers and is a positive company culture indicator to prospective employees.

Preparation for the unexpected 

The pandemic was a serious wake-up call for us all, exposing shortfalls in processes, PPE provision, technology and other business-critical areas. Now is the time to evaluate your response – from staff communication channels to continuity plans and WFH policies – to ensure you’re equipped for the next challenge.

Ian Hatherley urges companies to use their experience to bring about beneficial change: ‘The pandemic has been a monumental test for many businesses and we will continue to feel the impact of COVID-19 for years to come. However, the lessons of the past 12 months will prepare employers for a safer future.’

If you’d like to review your post-pandemic risk assessments with a health and safety expert, book a free telephone consultation with a Southalls specialist on 0345 257 4015 or email safetyadvice@southalls.com