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Monitoring Health & Safety in a COVID19 World

Set and forget. An attitude that is all too common across workplaces when it comes to managing health and safety and one that too often results in a serious workplace incident. 

Safety professionals have regularly seen the negative consequences of someone setting and forgetting.  Whether it’s a workplace lacking in supervision for new employees or a new item of plant that is expected to operate ‘as new’ but is never checked, inspected or maintained until a major breakdown. There are countless examples of injuries stemming from ineffective workplace monitoring, such as absent supervision or ineffective plant maintenance programs. 

Which is why organisations have a legal obligation that goes beyond providing and maintaining a safe workplace, to monitor the health of their workers and the conditions in the workplace. In practice, it would be near impossible to ‘maintain’ a safe workplace that didn’t have some type of program to measure or monitor the conditions. Screenshot 2020 06 04 10.42.09

Importantly, this obligation extends to any workplace, including many recently established workplaces that might be remote from a central office or not directly under an organisation’s control. Given the absence of casual or informal monitoring of employees or the workplace environment, it’s even possible that formal monitoring programs become an even greater focus of the health and safety program as working from home or remotely becomes more entrenched in our society. 

However, implementing the same monitoring efforts across a range of remote workplaces isn’t going to meet your legal obligations or protect your employees. With the changes in workplaces, organisations will need to consider:

  1. Who is responsible for what with new working from home arrangements? Is the duty exclusively one party’s or is it shared?
  2. What is reasonably likely to go wrong with working from home arrangements and how frequent should any checks be?
  3. How might you monitor a remote workplace objectively when you need to rely on others to provide information?
  4. How can employee health and wellbeing be effectively monitored without regular face to face interaction.

While inserting existing monitoring programs into the new environment might seem a suitable quick fix, this is just another example of Set and Forget. Instead, be sure to adapt them to avoid them becoming onerous or an irrelevant compliance exercise.  Where a comprehensive quarterly workplace inspection might be a suitable of monitoring conditions in an office, its unlikely to be suitable for a home environment competing with home schooling activities, general family detritus and pets chewing on cables. Such circumstances might be better off with a program that is more frequent but focusses its attention on home office issues.  

Similarly, standard monitoring activities to monitor an employee’s health aren’t likely to suit the new normal. Mental health has emerged as a leading workplace health and safety issue in recent years. While some might think it reasonable to expect that working from home might alleviate some of these issues, it’s just as reasonable that many people might experience the mental health impact of working in isolation or without instruction and oversight. Don’t assume that existing programs that monitor and support mental health will be accessible or effective. Where annual employee satisfaction surveys might help identify general issues with morale, engagement and mental health, the changing circumstances and absence of regular face to face interaction may mean you need to survey more frequently or directly, upskill those tasked with checking in on remote or isolated workers, or provide greater access to mental health trained professionals. Such a program will also help evaluate whether existing mental health programs are up to the job you’re asking of them. 

Possible adaptations to existing programs are provided as examples below:

Old Monitoring Program Adapted Monitoring Program
Quarterly Workplace Inspection Check Monthly SurveyMonkey Home Office Questionnaire or Monthly Photo of Home Office Space
Emergency Evac Drills Smoke Alarm, Safe Egress & First Aid Supply checks via Monthly Questionnaire. Formal Annual Check of First Aid Supplies
Fire Equipment Maintenance
Monthly First Aid Kit Checks 
5 Yearly Office Equipment Test & Tag Annual Home Office Equipment Test & Tag
Fleet Vehicle Pre-Start Checks Evidence that Private Vehicles used for work are registered, insured and maintained in accordance with OEM requirements
Annual Employee Satisfaction Surveys Monthly Employee Surveys or Regular Interaction with Mental Health First Aid Officers.

Having established a new monitoring program, organisations should make sure they have the systems and processes to ensure that corrective actions are promptly implemented. This means:

  • Having robust means to track and record workplace issues, the required corrective action, responsibility and status / completion.
  • Determining and communicating to all parties who is responsible for maintaining what standards expected of a home office environment
  • Practical means to deliver corrective actions that are the responsibility of the organisation

All of these will need to consider the geographic spread of your remote workplaces. If a computer monitor needs testing and tagging, how is that going to happen across 100s of remote workplaces? Similarly, how are you going to track the outcome of 100s of monthly home office checks?

Don’t forget that an effective monitoring program can also assist directors and officers in their Due Diligence obligations. It will enable them to stay informed of health and safety matters associated with their operations and, consequently, provide opportunity to address those issues with resources in a timely fashion.  

So don’t ‘Set and forget’ and assume your existing monitoring program is helping the way you need it to. Much like the mantra “if you cant measure it, you cant manage it” monitoring the conditions in your workplaces and the health of your employees will enable you to better manage and provide you the insight to improve it. Finding ways to do it in a COVID19 world will help your employees, and as a consequence the organisation, thrive.

If you need  guidance or advice on how to develop suitable monitoring programs to meet your health and safety obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic you can contact Verus via www.verus.com.au.

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