Workplace Safety in 2022

As the Omicron variant is spreading and rapidly becoming the dominant strain across North America, there are resurging issues with testing, vaccinations, quarantine timelines, social distancing and everything that we have all been moving away from for the last few months. You’re not alone in feeling like you are perpetually stuck in a grindhouse version of Groundhog’s Day – only it’s the same six month pattern over and over and over again. You’re not alone in being exhausted, or feeling like you just want to throw in the towel.

There was a sense of hubris when the mRNA vaccines were approved. A scenario where we reveled in mankind’s intellect that we could create an innovative and effective series of vaccines in weeks, instead of years or decades. Now, obviously a large population has doubts because of the rapid timelines and lack of longterm studies and remain unvaccinated, but there has never been as large a sample pool for a vaccine than now. It’s amazing what has been accomplished. Just 30 days ago we were back to arguing about economics instead of health. Just 30 days ago, so many organizations like yours were implementing return-to-office plans. Now, like Bill Murray’s character, we are waking up to Sonny and Cher and a haunting familiar realty.

Like it or not, it’s time for your organization to consider how it makes it’s temporary work-from-home policies a permanent work-from-home policy. The ping-ponging of employees going back and forth, making plans for childcare, in addition to the stress of testing in the workplace is not only taxing, it:

  • lowers morale
  • negatively affects productivity
  • increases real costs for employers

Large organizations like Apple, Google, Fidelity Investments and others, who for the last 60 days have been championing the return-to-the-office message have, in the last week, accepted this new strain reality and relented to the idea the work-from-home has no end date, and that hybrid working is not the new normal, it is just, normal.

We cannot be shocked each time a new variant emerges, because we have transitioned from a pandemic to an endemic and we need to change our thinking to reflect that. As we approach 2022, let’s not make the same mistake we made in 2021 and think this is the year we get back to how we were; instead, we should look at our organizations and question how do we prosper in a world where this virus and us coexist? What processes and procedures need to be amended and changed so that they are not temporary, but are institutionalized?

Even now, we are in a tight labor market and workers have the upper hand. Employees across North America have already shown that they’ll quit if they are not happy or treated fairly, and in this market, it’s not easy to replace the people who resigned. Worse, this can create a domino-like series of events, where the attrition causes an increased workload on the remaining employees, which feeds more attrition, and so on, while HR takes 3,4,5 times as long to find a candidate to hire. Supporting workers, making work safe, investing in safety measures, pays returns 8-9x in the first year, but it goes even further in building a profitable and productive culture.

I know this isn’t the usual uplifting, post-Christmas/pre-New Year piece I write, but it isn’t necessarily doom and gloom either.

Over the past 2 years, OHS professionals have been transformative in minding the gaps and keeping businesses going. Profit margins are up across the board, and in reality, the effect on productivity has been minor in most industries (if you take hospitality and tourism out of the equation). 2022 is the year that OHS professionals can be the catalyst for even further change and progress, by turning temporary measures into institutional changes. Work from home procedures is just one example, but working alone, ergonomics, hazard reporting, safety training… there is a lot of good work to be done, and OHS can, and will, lead the way.