RISK IN CONTEXT

Don’t Let Pandemic Distractions Hamper Safety

Posted by Larry Pearlman April 02, 2020

To say people are distracted from their jobs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic would be a classic understatement. From a safety perspective, it’s important to remember that distracted workers — even seasoned veterans — are more prone to make mistakes.

Employees are grappling with multiple questions: How long will the situation last? How will my employment be affected? Is my family safe?

Mercer, a Marsh & McLennan company, is tracking some measures that companies are taking around COVID-19. Of the close to 1,750 respondents to on an online survey (as of April 1), nearly three-quarters said their operational responses to COVID-19 have had more than minimal impact, from forcing employees to work from home to complete shutdowns. Only 7% said they do not intend to close any facilities.

When people get distracted from their jobs, safety incidents tend to go up. Many might think that leaders want them to focus on efficiency, even at the cost of safety. For others, the mind wanders given other concerns, from working long hours, or simply exhaustion.

Here are some practical steps safety leaders can take to reinforce safety messaging:

Redouble your safety efforts. Safety professionals and other leaders should get into the field — real or virtual — to check in and talk with your people. With social distancing and other restrictions in place, be creative with what it means to be “in the field.” For example, you can use cell phone apps with visual capabilities or have team members use webcams to let you see what they are seeing.

Be open to discussions about perceived dilemmas between safety and cost/production/service. Let workers know clearly what your expectations are. Without frequent and specific guidance, people will “fill in the gaps” and create their own story about what is important — and that may not be safety.

State your safety expectations explicitly. Especially in light of the ongoing crisis, employees need to be reminded that safety is your top priority. Avoid telling them simply: “Be safe.” Instead, share specific things they can do, such as: “Make sure you wear the proper safety equipment at all times.”

Reinforce the importance of escalation. When it comes to safety, we ask people to control what they can and escalate what they can’t. Unfortunately, there is a lot that we can't control during a pandemic. Focusing on what can be done will help employees remain consistent with your safety expectations.

Thank people for doing the right things. As you are in the field, observe how people are working. When you see things happening correctly, thank them. For example, when you see proper spacing being maintained, it’s easy to say: “Thanks for maintaining that six-foot separation. You're doing the right thing.” Employees will notice that you care what they do and how they do it.

Empathize. Many people are fearful in the current environment. Their concerns range from physical and mental health to family issues to economic hardship. Knowing that you understand what they are going through can help to ease anxiety, and keep their focus on safety.

It’s hard to imagine a recent time during which the present and the future both seemed so fraught. But even during this unprecedented period, safety needs to remain an unwavering priority.

Larry Pearlman

Larry Pearlman is a senior vice president with the Workforce Strategies Practice of Marsh Risk Consulting, located in the Chicago office.