Yellow-hard-hat-workplace-safety-manual-mask For businesses that are open, workplace safety procedures are critical to keeping essential workers safe and healthy. (Photo: iStock)

Grocery clerks. Restaurant staff. Public transit workers. Gas station attendants. Mail carriers. Truck drivers. Warehouse and food processing workers. Public safety officers. And, of course, healthcare professionals. They all are essential workers.

Across the world, non-essential businesses are closing or significantly reducing activities to keep more people at home, while essential businesses look for ways to keep their workers safe and healthy.

AXA XL’s Global Casualty Risk Consulting Manager, Sheri Wilbanks, shares the challenges of the current operating environment for essential businesses. In the following Q&A, she explains how sound risk management principles ― assessing new perils given current circumstances and operating adjustments ― remain the foundation to minimize the threats to employees and customers and better protect their business.

PC360: What protocols or steps are essential businesses taking to protect employees? 

Wilbanks: The protocols that are required depend on the nature of the business operations and the hazards present, which usually means starting with a risk assessment first. What’s the risk? Who’s at risk? What actions will minimize that risk?

For instance, businesses adhering to health professional guidance are doing their best to keep a recommended distance between or minimal contact among their employees and the customers they serve. The resulting practice may be to limit the number of staff in the workplace at once. Many businesses implemented A teams and B teams to work alternative schedules to lessen the exposure for their workforces.

Those serving the general public may place a limit on the number of customers permitted in their store or facility. Others offer special shopping hours for their more vulnerable customers. Restaurants introduced to-your-car delivery.

Generally, many will make changes to how they transact business to reduce hazards presented to their employees and customers. Documenting these changes is an important action along with the risk assessment and mitigation process. Documentation forms part of the evidence to minimize the liability that may arise during this time.

What’s not essential?

PC360: Are there companies that are conducting business as usual? 

Wilbanks: Few operations will continue with business as usual. Employers are looking at what are essential activities and what are non-essential activities. They may need to do more with less staff. Or they may need to increase or add an activity to their business that wasn’t previously present, such as many supermarkets offering curbside pickup and delivery.

Modified tasks, additional or new tasks, and operating with less staff all require an assessment of the worker risks and appropriate risk mitigation measures. Tasks that may require two or more employees may need to wait or be done in a different manner. When a store needs to get stock on the shelf, which would be done with a team of 10, and staff availability is only five, the method and expectations for shelf stocking must be adjusted. Heavy boxes, typically moved using tandem lifts with two people, now may need to be partially emptied as part of a modification to the standard protocol.

Employers still need their employees to follow protocols to work safely, especially when using alternative methods.

Hand sanitizer is flammable

PC360: With personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks and gloves in short supply, many businesses are directing those supplies to first responders and healthcare workers who need them most. What other safety equipment or protocols should businesses use?

Wilbanks: Yes, it’s important that professionals have the right PPE. One new item added to the hygiene routine at many businesses is the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. To be the most effective the hand sanitizer should have an alcohol content between 60% and 95% and used on visibly clean hands. It’s important to note that if hands are visibly dirty, the effectiveness of the hand sanitizer is significantly reduced.

The hand sanitizer must dry on the hands. A user should not wipe any excess off their hands; it should evaporate, which may take time.

Hand sanitizers must be handled carefully, especially in some work environments. For instance, users should take added precautions when working around open flames. The hand sanitizer’s alcohol content makes it highly flammable, and it is still present if the hands appear wet after use. Severe burns can occur.

All hand sanitizer and similar high-alcohol-content disinfecting products should be stored carefully, not near heat sources. During this time, businesses may have a much larger supply of these types of products than they normally would, so storage practices should be looked at carefully.

PC360: How important is communication in keeping essential workers safe?

Wilbanks: It’s so important. Businesses need to establish open channels of communication. And communication has to go both ways, from managers and health & safety officers to employees, and back.

Employees need to understand the severity of the risk, the importance of the actions that are being taken and their role. Managers and health & safety teams need to understand employees’ concerns so they can adequately address them and make needed adjustments.

Post-crisis plans

PC360: What lessons can be learned?

Wilbanks: There will be plenty of lessons learned, and post-crisis, I would expect every company to review their business continuity plan measures and discuss what went well and what could be improved.

One of the biggest business continuity planning lessons learned will be about PPE. The recent shortages of PPE supplies should spark important discussions and potential changes to manage this supply. Of course, a global pandemic presents a unique situation because we face shortages of supply on a global scale. Most crisis situations are regional in scope. When one region is affected, there are others to reach out to for supplies. What do we do in a global crisis scenario? We’re all learning those lessons now.

PC360: What do customers need to be aware of? How can they help?

Wilbanks: Know the rules of the business you are visiting and follow them, for example, things like business hours, available business services, and limits on the number of customers inside. Businesses want to keep you and their employees safe.

Do your part to follow the health professional guidance, including minimizing outings to essential activities only, don’t go out if you don’t feel well, follow hygiene recommendations on hand washing and not touching your face, and ― so very important right now ― be patient. We can all do this, and it is just as much about protecting someone else as it is protecting yourself. Do it for these essential workers as well as for yourself and your family!

Note: AXA XL Risk Consulting also has shared its pandemic concerns and general best practice guidance.

A version of this interview was published on AXA XL’s blog, Fast, Fast Forward. It is reprinted here with permission.

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