How OHS must change in the post-COVID era

For the past 100 years Occupational Health and Safety was primarily focused on administrative systems related to policies, procedures, training and personal protective equipment. The bulk of OHS practitioners worldwide, spend millions of manhours online, looking for templates and examples of paperwork and more paperwork and then some paperwork.

Management systems and audits have been developed, modified and punted by brokers and sales reps from all walks of life. But when the World faced yet another pandemic, it wasn’t the OHS practitioners that stepped to the forefront and started to implement preventive measures at work.

To the contrary the South African Institute for Occupational Health and Safety claims that with “COVID-19 being the epicenter of every single person’s life, now more than ever, Occupational Health and Safety Professionals are at the forefront of this pandemic assisting and guiding industry to return to the workplace in a safe and healthy manner. Never in the history of the world or the formal practice of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in general, has the overall occupation of OHS ever been so highlighted. Thus the importance of all OHS Professionals to combine and share their collective knowledge and experience for the greater good and ultimately to combat and overcome COVID-19.”

It wasn’t even the law enforcers of the variety of OHS laws globally, that stepped forward and acted proactively. No, it was the Medical profession and the Public and Community Health departments that laid down the rules.

Worldwide media reports show that claims like these, where credit is claimed for work done by others, are nothing but fake news and that the medical and public health officials and organisations were the forerunners of the COVID-19 response plans, even the development of the gradual “safe return” to work.

OHS has always been retroactive and due to the limited number of scientists involved in virology and epidemiology of occupational illnesses caused by biological agents like the Corona virus, will always be a curative profession like the prison warders in the judicial system. There, but just a little too late. The fan’s already full of it.

With the lockdown being eased recently in many countries, it is once again the OHS practitioners that lag behind and scurries around looking for templates and examples of risk assessments and COVID management plans. Some even formed a forum to share documents, forms and plans as an upliftment exercise, while occupational legislation which should have prevented the workplace impact of COVID-19, has been totally ignored. One such example is the Hazardous Biological Agents Regulations, which if implemented in February 2020, would not have needed COVID-19 branded action plans and products.

It does however from an economical point make more sense to wait until it’s a big thing before taking action. No healthly person buys antibiotics. There’s no profit to be made in a healthy society.

In reality, OHS is not dead, but the COVID pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to employers that there is no such thing as an OHS Practitioner. If at all, there are only a handful of individuals that carry proper qualifications in both Occupational Safety and Occupational Health. And the first step to getting help is to admit you have a problem. Or you can cling to ignorance is bliss.

OHS management systems have created a false sense of security for employers and employees alike. The OHS practitioners were not qualified to deal with the COVID and similar epidemics. Very few had studied Microbiology or Epidemiology to even understand the basics of hazardous biological agents like the SARS-COV-2.

In contrast, the real professionals, the Occupational Medicine and Health practitioners have what it takes to manage these events. These specialist doctors and nurses are in fact the OHS practitioners we need going forward.

Scientists have said that the Corona virus family is here to stay as they relentlessly work on a vaccine. Like any other annual flu, we are in all likelihood going to see one of these viruses in the near future again. Going back in history, the various pandemics have killed millions and it is irrational to ignore the prevalence of these illnesses at the workplace. People spend between 25% to 50% of their working days at the workplace, making the workplace the primary point of initial action.

A change in focus is desperately needed.

The Post-Covid OHS practitioner should be competent to deal with Health related issues, more than Safety.  A safety incident seldom affects more than 3 persons at a time, while health issues effects the entire workforce at a time. It takes one infected person to transmit a disease to everyone he or she comes in contact with. Although it is not an Occupationally created health risk like noise, vibration or ergonomics, it is a social hazard resulting from the activities of employers.

Historically, there was no such thing as Occupational Safety or Occupational Health. A century ago, it was Industrial Safety, Industrial Health and Industrial Hygiene. The paradigm was shifted from the workplace to the work itself. OHS stopped looking at the impact of activities on the people. OHS started to look at the impact of the people on our activities and even introduced it as part of the tripple bottom line reporting drive. OHS tried to change the behaviour of people to suit the workplace and even invented programs like BBS to justify their blinkered vision. OHS blindly followed the insurance industry’s theory that people cause the majority of accidents and developed spreadsheet after spreadsheet to display colourful pie charts in the board room to impress the directors. OHS created programs resembling car parts, like tailgate and toolbox talks to satisfy the duty to inform. OHS group 20 to 100 people in an auditorium and tell them how strongly OHS supports Zero Harm and all the other buzzwords creating the right noises. And 20 to 100 people walk out of the auditorium, none the wiser.

Yet above all of this, OHS ignore the impact business and employment has on the quality of life. OHS leave that to others to deal with when the time comes. OHS systems are nothing better than the statistics it so religiously updates every day after the latest LTI. Just another lagging indicator.

When the focus turns to Quality of Life, the rest will fall in place. If only employers will first and foremost look at their moral compass and realise that we as a specie takes precedent over any legal and financial direction of the business. So screw Safety First to hide the profits from shareholders.

Put People First! Ready to take on the challenge MR CEO? Really? See you at the next Health and Safety meeting!