OHS: what has the pandemic changed?

On December 31st, 2019, the Beijing office of WHO, the World Health Organization, the UN health organization, was informed of some cases of pneumonia discovered in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province, China. On January 3rd, 2020, 44 cases were confirmed and the cause, a new type of Coronavirus, was isolated on January 7. Its genetic sequence was shared for study purposes on January 12th: COVID-19 (CoronaVirus Disease 2019) became official. On January 13th, the government of Thailand announced the first case of COVID-19 outside China, on January 15 it was the turn of Japan, on the 20 of the Republic of Korea. The first WHO report, on January 21, reported 282 confirmed cases, the next day 314. On January 23, the government of the People’s Republic of China imposed a lockdown on Wuhan and in the province of Hubei, in an attempt to quarantine the centre of the epidemic, blocking a population of 57 million people: only one person per household was allowed to go out to buy food, every two days. On the same day, the first case exported to the United States was ascertained, on the 25th two cases in the EU, in France, on the 28th in Germany.

How much has changed in the world of work since January 30th, 2020, when the WHO issued an “International Public Health Emergency” announcement?

The work

The first thing that has certainly changed is the work itself. For many people it has simply disappeared, many companies have had to close, curtail, or suspend their activities. These are the ones that moved and brought people together, such as the tourism, hospitality, and entertainment industries. Other people, who have been fortunate enough to be able to continue working, have seen a new burden of concern associated with their business, such as health workers who have decided to leave their home to rent apartments where they can live alone, to protect their family members from the possibility of infection. The shop assistants and people in contact with the public, those who must use public transport to get to work. Remote work has imposed itself for all those activities for which it was possible, including school and university.

The procedures

The obsessive respect for procedures, which once belonged to the most dangerous productive sectors, has extended to everyday work: we have defined rules, paths, new working methods. People in contact with the public must constantly remember to regularly sanitize their hands and objects that may have been touched by others and to respect personal distances and safety rules to avoid getting infected. Strict protocols have been defined for the mutual protection of workers.

The equipment

Strategies for the prevention of COVID-19 contagion have brought to the fore the need to use equipment beyond their usual field of application. Respiratory protection masks, for example, from personal protective equipment to be used only for some specific activities, have now become an article of clothing: it is impossible to circulate without. Similarly, face protection screens have spread, once used mainly by welders, those who used grinder machines and gardeners. Transparent protection barriers for shop assistants and operators exposed to the public are back in vogue, as in old post offices and work activities cannot do without hand sanitizing liquids and signalling tapes to delimit transit routes.

The psychology

The factor on which the COVID-19 pandemic has still had an incalculable impact is the psychological one. In recent months we have had to limit as much as possible the meetings with our loved ones, friends and relatives; learning to keep your distance when we meet another person, to the point of glaring at those who get too close to us on the subway or in the elevator. We must limit the trips from home to those strictly necessary, to go to and from work and buy food and necessities and we have had to undergo increasingly longer remote working sessions. In this way we had to exchange meetings with videoconferences, thus giving up a fundamental part of our being, sociality.

Sociality, then, which has become even more reduced and complicated for those who work from home: a certain neglect that takes us when we are not in contact with our fellow men has allowed us, little by little, to let the barriers that separate private life from work dissolve, also because, very often, the only human relationships that remain are those during work.

What to expect from the future?

This pandemic has resulted in human losses, at the time of writing these notes there are nearly 58 million cases in the world, of which 1,372,182 fatal, and damage to our economies. The feeling is that, if it will be possible to recover from the latter, and the recoveries that have taken place in the various countries in the intervals between the various upsurge peaks, comfort this thought, we do not yet know how to assess the psychological damage that our societies are suffering.

It is to be hoped that, within a few years, the distribution of vaccines will allow us to return to the normalcy of our pre-pandemic life: travels, meetings. Probably, together with the acquired comforts of being able to make a videoconference instead of a trip or to shop online instead of lugging heavy shopping carts, we will have acquired new vulnerabilities in our human relationships. So, we must remember right now that a mature company cannot limit itself to mere compliance with the OHS standard: it must look at the worker as something more than a subject protected by law. He/she is rather the most valuable business asset, to be enhanced and enabled to develop its potential.

The business climate relating to interpersonal relationships within an organization will have to be analysed and made the subject of plans for its improvement, with training interventions on the various managerial levels, because a bad climate affects the productivity of workers. Even before the pandemic, research in the Republic of Ireland found that, during their working life, two out of five workers were subjected to unpleasant conditions such as obsessive checks, unreasonable workloads, impossible goals, or were denied important information for their work. One in three workers complained that they were intimidated, humiliated, and reproached in abusive terms. One in forty workers has experienced violent acts in the workplace. The pandemic is an opportunity to rethink structurally our organization and the way we relate each other for working purposes and correct these dynamics.

Author: Antonio Pedna

Independent QHSE Manager & Adviser | Master of Architecture and Construction Engineering | TechIOSH

I am a specialist in QHSE in large construction sites with over 20 years of experience in the building business.

Based between Izmir, Turkey and Milan, Italy, I work in the world of large infrastructure projects in Italy, Africa and Middle East, a highly competitive environment, where the attention to technical detail, organization, management and reporting is taken to extremes.

I’m chartered Architect, Master of Architecture and Construction Engineering, Technical Member IOSH (TechIOSH), I achieved the NEBOSH International General Certificate in Health and Safety (NEBOSH IGC) and I’m qualified Safety Manager and Safety Coordinator (RSPP, CSP/CSE according to the Italian regulations) and qualified lead/third part auditor for management systems.