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Eight weeks in

Not only did we not expect the Covid pandemic, but we didn’t foresee it developing as it has. The scientists and medical experts have learned a lot though they still say there is much they don’t yet know. Probably, most of us have faith in these experts when it comes to developing treatments, testing, and eventually, a vaccine for the disease, and we have to stay patient and hopeful.

In the meanwhile there is a lot of positive action by the Public, in the form of fundraising and shows of support, and in generally observing social distancing and improved hygiene.

But we all know that the situation cannot continue indefinitely and that sooner or later, in whatever form it takes, we will need to emerge from restrictions. The debate seems to be all about when this will happen, who will be involved, and which restrictions will be removed, and the judgement is about achieving a balance between safety and economic cost. This balance of safety versus cost, is one that Health and Safety practitioners have long been accustomed to, and it is enshrined in Law.

Other familiar concepts emerge too, such as the HSWA s2 requirement to protect the workforce, over whom we have a great deal of control, and the simultaneous S3 duty to protect third parties, the Public, over whom our control is usually much less, especially when we are engaging with them as customers. Duty of Care is another idea that has been around for nearly a Century now, and we have an understanding that the level of duty reflects the vulnerability of those at risk. This concept has also been established by Case Law.

So even though it would be true to say that most of us didn’t see this coming, it hasn’t caught us completely without the means to deal with it. The biggest problem for many is to work out just exactly what our destination is, that is to say, what part(s) of our business we want to keep open, how we will interact with our customers, and how we will protect our workforce in a sustainable way. The first of these is largely a commercial decision depending on our sector and what sort of financial support we can call upon, and may relate only marginally to Health and Safety considerations. Let’s take two examples of what are clearly essential services: Supermarkets, which are able to continue in the same market sector selling much the same products, and Utilities companies offering support to the nation’s infrastructure which will also mostly carry on with the same maintenance tasks as before.

These two examples though offer an extreme view of customer interaction, with the former dealing with unpredictable numbers of people who may not have given much thought to their behaviour, actions, and responsibilities. Supermarket customers (and that includes us) appear to need ushering with the use of barriers and tape and constant reminders of the arrangements in place in the form of notices and announcements, and many supermarkets are doing just that, though not all. Pipeline inspectors, in contrast, arrive on site following exchange of documentation, with a skilled workforce, and established procedures for supervision, security, and welfare.

These are broad generalisations, it is true, but one key difference in how these companies work lies in the quality of communication that is possible, and the level of compliance that might be expected, two issues that are not unrelated. We could say that there has never been a better time to look again at how we communicate with our customers, and many examples are appearing of companies going much further than before to reach out. Admittedly this is easier to do with a customer base that can be contacted online than with one that essentially just turns up.

The stakes are high, and the situation isn’t going to return to ‘normal’ any time soon, so it makes sense to try whatever it takes to get our message across. Put another way, the queues waiting in the rain outside supermarkets are going to need some entertaining. Extended shelters with information display screens could become the norm.

Customers are important though ever-changing, but the constant in these two examples is their own workforce. Some workers would come to work readily but cannot do so, while others are required to be at work in spite of being worried, if not actually scared. Employers must understand that for weeks the message has been one of recognising a serious risk (“thousands could die”) and of withdrawing from normal life (“stay home, protect the NHS”) and now we have to start in a very controlled and cautious manner, to get back to work. It has long been argued that with a few exceptions, workers are safer at work, than when travelling to and from work, or at home doing DIY, or playing sport. We have to reinforce that message and demonstrate that workplaces are safe places. Keeping our workforce not just safe, but also feeling safe is one of our biggest challenges.

Competitive margins are going to be squeezed, at least to start with, with extra costs for PPE, sanitising, redesigned workstations, and reduced output capacity, but at least companies who go to these lengths will still be in business. There aren’t going to be many winners in this pandemic (except maybe internet TV providers) but there ought to be a lot more survivors. Whatever the Plan that is eventually unveiled by Government, employers will have to develop their own plans, specific to themselves. This could be the Covid Recovery Policy, to stand beside their Health and Safety Policy, and to be available to all interested parties such as customers, suppliers, and of course, the workers. Let’s get started on this now.

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