by Mark Pew
Workplace safety has been top-of-mind since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911. The deaths of 146 people in New York City effectively launched workers’ compensation in the United States and the career of eyewitness Frances Perkins, the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. The requirement for workplace safety was codified with the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1970. With those major events, and many others, including a transition to a service-based economy with less dangerous jobs, the number and severity of occupational injuries has consistently declined. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019, there were a total of 5,333 fatal injuries with a nonfatal rate of 2.8 per 100 full-time equivalent workers.
The definition of “workplace” has changed over time. First it was factories in a very controlled environment. Then it was office buildings with a tad more personal autonomy but still in observable groups. The advent of business travel meant that a workplace could be a plane, rental car, hotel or somebody else’s office space but the risks were still understood in advance.
And then, in March 2020, the definition changed forever. When “shelter-in-place” was enacted to combat COVID-19, suddenly employers were presented with the challenge of moving to a WFH (work from home) environment. It was easier for companies that were already operating in a digitized world than those that required work be done in-person (aka “essential”), but all were impacted in some way. With 74 percent of Fortune 500 CEO’s expecting to reduce their office space due to hybrid working environments, WFH is turning into a quasi-permanent WFA (work from anywhere).
What does this ever-evolving “workplace” mean for occupational safety? Potentially, a lot.
What do employers know about the individual workspaces outside of their physical office? Are employees following corporate policies and procedures for safety? Are the ergonomics for their work environment optimized for safe productivity? At what point is a WFA employee “on the clock” when it comes to potential injuries? Are occupationally related injuries being reported timely and accurately? When every interaction is virtual, how do supervisors ensure safety? How do safety protocols follow an employee who is traveling for business purposes?
The good news is that employers have had almost twenty months to figure this out.
The bad news is that the answers to any of these questions (and more) might still be “I don’t know” for many employers. They were so focused on maintaining productivity – and viability – during the #COVIDchaos that they haven’t strategically thought about the implications of changing worker locations on workplace safety. If you fall into that category, it’s time to take a deep breath and analyze then adjust policies. WFH and WFA have changed the workplace permanently and the management of safety needs to stay in sync.
About the Author
Mark Pew is an award-winning international speaker, blogger, author and jurisdictional advisor. He has focused on the intersection of chronic pain and appropriate treatment since 2003. He is the driving force and co-founder of The Transitions and in August 2021 launched The RxProfessor consulting practice (www.TheRxProfessor.com).
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