March 23, 2020

Making the Workplace Safe from COVID-19

Making the Workplace Safe from COVID-19: Let’s Apply Learnings and Strategy from SIF Prevention

Over the past 40 years working with global organizations of all sorts on EHS improvement, I’ve never seen anything like the situation we face today. We have less knowledge to go on, more uncertainty and a larger threat than anyone saw coming. At the same time we have unique capabilities, in data and organizational understanding, leadership and culture, and we have unprecedented reason to be highly motivated.

Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 is of special interest to every organization but of even greater significance for organizations that rely on people to prevent SIF events. Fortunately, these organizations can apply learnings from SIF prevention in their approach to maintaining business continuity. This is important to everyone, but crucial to those organizations that are deemed essential.

Even with the most conservative assumptions, including favorable average age and health status of employees exposed, an organization with 10,000 employees is vulnerable to a large number of fatal events, with devasting impact on its people and business continuity.  This is bad for everyone, but especially bad for those organizations who are providing critical services through this period of social and economic crisis. Organizations will have developed business continuity plans and crisis management functions to develop and implement new requirements. These generate guidelines for what to do. But how much confidence do your leaders have that “following” the guidelines will prevent exposure and fatality risk?

We all know that the gap between writing procedures and performing work in accordance with them is very large and very formidable. The gap can be closed, but it takes a strong commitment from leadership and a strong site level culture. Getting this requires commitment and understanding from leaders above the site, sometimes several levels above. But when this commitment is present, and leaders do the right things in the right way, for the right reasons, getting the work done safely and preserving the health of the workforce is well within reach, even when the challenge is big.

But this isn’t going to happen on its own. Getting it done needs to be thought through in strategic  terms. And in essential industries, food, transportation, and energy for example, keeping these facilities open is essential to the national interest. So how should organizational leaders think about all this? Knowledge and strategy drawn from the emphasis organizations have given to SIF events over the past several years can help.

Recognize that the situational configuration we are faced with is new and different, requiring new and different response measures. Differences are in timing, stakes, and resulting method. Preventing coronavirus infection in the workforce is a short term more than a long-term issue. Being successful is the difference between keeping sites open and providing critical services, and closing sites because of inability to maintain a healthy workplace. At the same time the burning platform presents an opportunity to show what can be done when we all work together for the common good. I can’t remember a stronger leadership opportunity.    

Think About COVID-19 as a SIF Issue

The good news is that we know a lot about how to deal with this kind of issue in general.  What we need to develop rapidly now are strategies that are responsive to the new external environment, the New World. Many organizations have been successful at reducing SIF events in the Old World. Leading organizations of this kind are on a downward trajectory toward zero. Several that I’m familiar with, who have global populations of hundreds of thousands of employees and contractors, are down to a few fatal events a year. Many have had no fatal events in their U.S. based facilities.

This success demonstrates that it can be done over the long term. But what is the strategy for the short-term, for the next say 3 to 6 months? Think about it as you would any SIF precursor. In that sense the problem and solution are the same. In other important ways they are different.

We know the list of recommended practices. Wash your hands, sanitize areas frequently, maintain distance between people etc.    We know that these practices, if done consistently will reduce exposure to a highly significant degree. What we have to learn is how leadership decision making influences these practices, how change can be accomplished rapidly rather than gradually, and how the climate leaders create influences the desired cultural end point. We know it can be done, but we have to learn how to do it within the New World. I believe this can be done very effectively and rapidly, using the Burning Platform as positive inertia to mobilize leadership and employee engagement toward the common good of keeping employees safe.  

Our ability to reduce COVID-19 exposure in our workplaces will save lives in our organizations, and contribute to slowing the progress of the pandemic across the world. It will show that doing the right things in the right way at the right time can have a dramatic and measurable affect on what might otherwise be an unmanageable catastrophe. And equally important, it can contribute to keeping the supply chain alive, at a time when stoppages could be very damaging to say the least.

Public Policy and Organizational Strategy are Different Things Altogether

Yes, of course. But we have guidelines already, and a national public health strategy informed by the best public health leaders out there. And there is only a limited amount we can do. Exercise hand hygiene, social distancing, clean surfaces, get testing early. But these strategies are intended for an ‘uncontained’ general public. By necessity public strategies must be broad; generic rather than specific;  shut and lock down as much as possible because what else can you do?  This is appropriate for the public at large. But different, much faster and more effective strategies are appropriate and available at the organizational level. 

The organization has a different set of defining parameters than the public at large. And those parameters change the game. Organizations have much narrower and more useful parameters. Leaders are present for every 10 to 20 people, and informal leaders are also present in the context of a group whose members form a culture. In most cases a leadership structure is present for every 100 to 500 people, each of whom thinks of themselves as a member. Citizenship is not abstract, it provides a paycheck, creates an identity as part of a community. Communication across the group at the local or site level is direct and known. Leaders aren’t talking to an open window, they speak to a defined and responsive group. The feedback loop is very short and so leaders need to be listening and responsive to dynamic conditions raised by their workforce. These conditions provide a unifying purpose that can help resolve any previous differences and provide everyone with a strong common objective.

At this level we can get things done faster, more efficiently and with greater effectiveness.    

What Does a COVID-19 SIF Strategy at the Organizational Level Look Like?

The senior most leaders in the organization need to be committed to the objective of providing a safe workplace in the face of the coronavirus crisis. They must understand what it takes to do this, and how they are personally connected, either to undermining it or getting it done. In practical terms this comes down to the safety related decisions they make. A major obstacle is that leaders frequently don’t realize the extent to which their decisions influence the behaviors of workers. My colleagues and I have studied this in depth (view article here), across different organizations and the findings are clear.

At the site level leaders need to clearly define the decisions and behaviors expected at each level, starting, first and foremost, with themselves. What decisions must the site manager and her direct reports be prepared to make? Compliance is not optional. If a leader is weak and ambiguous in their commitment they should be replaced. We don’t have time to bring people along.

For the behavioral aspects the targets are pretty clear: hygiene, protective measures, you know the list. From a leadership decision-making perspective it is not clear at all.

 Here are some important questions to ask and answer: 

  1. Do we have an adequate COVID-19 SIF prevention strategy in place?
  2. Will this close the gap between policy and practice?  
  3. Do we know what it will take from the organization to make the strategy work?
  4. Are we prepared to take decisive immediate action to reduce and eliminate coronavirus SIF precursors?

The end point is clear and the outcome measures are in place. We want zero fatal COVID-19 events across our organization. We want to remain open providing critical services to the community. We want a strategy in place that is fully and enthusiastically supported by our leaders, from the board to the front line supervisor and worker. This needs to be in place immediately, it is urgent and getting it done needs to go to the top of the list. Each leader needs to know what decisions and behaviors they will have to make in support of the plan.