Getting the economy going safely raises the profile of occupational health
By Dennis Archambault
Occupational health has never been more important than now, as businesses find ways to restore their enterprises to profitability within a safe working environment. Workers, understandably, are reluctant to put themselves at risk. Essential workers haven’t had much of a choice during the crisis stages of the pandemic. Now many of those who have been furloughed or in remote work settings have returned or will return to the workplace.
Re-engineering the workplace to prevent illness and injury is the work of occupational health professionals, in concert with business managers. Following guidelines from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and public health entities, as well as in consultation with union partners where applicable, occupational health professionals are defining their specialty like never before. There has always been concern for workplace injury and exposure to toxic substances, but this is the first time in modern history that businesses need to find a way to work amidst a pandemic.
Occupational health specialists have had the tough job of redesigning/re-engineering their workplaces to be safe and productive in the context of a contagious disease. While design is an essential start, monitoring is also important. As in any public health discipline, reliable and expedient data is essential, notes Dr. Walter Talamonti, medical director of Ford Motor Company (https://www.freep.com/story/money/cars/2020/05/17/gm-ford-coronavirus-covid-19-strategy-testing/5206989002/?utm_source=native&utm_medium=capi_retrofit&utm_content=inapp&build=native-web_i_p) Contact testing allows the company “to test employees with suspected symptoms and have results back within 24 hours. If they test positive, we can quickly identify close contact employees who may have been exposed and ask them to self-quarantine for 14 days.” Likewise, companies can re-engineer work processes where hot spots are identified.
“As economic and political pressure has built to relax ‘shelter in place’ public health orders for control of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), industry, professional service firms, retail and service establishments, and educational institutions seek to establish norms that protect workers, customers, clients, students, and visitors,” notes Mark Barnes, J.D., LL.M., and Paul E. Sax, M.D., who co-authored “Challenges of ‘Return to Work’ in a Pandemic,” published by the New England Journal of Medicine (https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsr2019953). This is somewhat of an understatement. Businesses, particularly retain businesses that operate on a thin profit margin, need to revive their businesses. The pressure of profitability and public health creates considerable tension. And given the possibility of workers contracting the coronavirus, absenteeism is an inevitable by-product, something large manufacturers are beginning to note. They are shifting workers from site to site to keep production moving.
The return to work is indeed challenging from a practical and a psychological perspective. Dr. Talamonti says it’s a matter of “science and data,” but it’s also the organization’s ability to communicate its proven commitment to safety and trust that it will act in the interests of workers as well as the company. Lessons learned as to how to effectively maintain productivity in a pandemic will be helpful in the future.
Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.