By Chang Li-Yen & Andy See Teong Leng
The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has indeed impacted most if not all organisations and brands. Businesses are resuming operations, hoping to recover lost income and survive this global public health tsunami, but this new norm has certainly disrupted our workplaces and exposed our storefronts’ lack of readiness in health and safety issues.
Sweeping the health and safety issue under the carpet is no longer an option. Instead, businesses must embrace this new norm. In fact, it is imperative to steer our organisations and brands towards communicating our commitment to ensuring health and safety. Preparedness for future threats, particularly emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19 must now be a core element of our Health and Safety agenda. We must make our workplaces and storefronts safe for our customers, workforce and the public. And yes, we must communicate this commitment clearly to our teams, customers and other interest groups, putting it at the heart of what we do, say and listen.
With the need to take health and safety preparedness seriously, many businesses are looking for guidance on how to restart businesses under the ‘new normal’ brought about by COVID-19.
In response, we have developed the 4+1 Health and Safety Checklist for businesses to kick-start operations again. This will also pave the way to reinvent our respective brands and organisations in the market.
The reality is, most, if not all of us, have very little awareness of the multiple health and safety hazards that we face every day. After all, bacteria and viruses are not visible to the naked eye. With an invisible threat, awareness is very low even for simple and basic hygiene practices such as washing hands, coughing and sneezing etiquette or wearing of face mask and disposing it thereafter.
We have lots to do to step-up our game in health and safety preparedness in this pandemic and beyond. Improving awareness of health and safety hazards helps our workforce better understand the risks in the workplace and appreciate the value of being prepared. Without awareness, we simply will not have the buy-in and support to mitigate the health and safety hazards. Remember, all it takes is just one individual to undo the entire process.
Many of us are starting from ground zero in terms of health and safety preparedness particularly against emerging infectious diseases. The first and critical element in any effective health and safety process is to assess and identify the hazards in the workplace and storefront including the ongoing hazard of COVID-19. We have to collect information about the hazard present or likely to be present, how it could be introduced, and identify hazard hotspots such as high touch surfaces (doorknobs, light switches, tables, etc).
We then have to review this information, evaluate the outcomes that could result from customer and/or workforce exposure to the hazard, as well as the impact on the business and organisation. A detailed assessment will help us develop holistic action plans to mitigate and control the health and safety hazard, covering all key aspects of the organisation - our people, processes and even products.
With a team that is well aware, the leadership now needs to ensure that there are plans in place for mitigation and control of hazards. Information from the assessment can be used to develop detailed plans and standard operating procedures (SOP). These have to be made available for the workforce and with steps in place to ensure they are put into practice.
By implementing SOPs such as washing hands, sanitising workplace, particularly high touch surfaces, and maintaining pantry cleanliness, we will be able to ensure that we remove any ambiguity and uncertainty on what needs to be done. It is imperative that workforce understand the importance of the SOPs related to health and safety hazards, as well as appreciate the need to follow the SOPs consciously and correctly.
Similar SOPs have long been practiced by laboratories, food and beverage players and other sensitive industries – it is time to take them to the offices, storefront and customer lounges to make them safe for customers, staff and others to be a health and safety-ready organisation.
A key success factor for any action plan is auditing on-ground practices. Through observation and random checks, we will be able to discover gaps in the current process and recommend action steps to improve or further mitigate the risks, and perhaps even amend SOPs to bridge those gaps. Even simple audit procedures will help the leadership identify the measures needed to encourage compliance. For example, some laboratories now place hand lotions next to soap dispensers, as many individuals avoided washing hands too often because it dried the skin. The hand lotion encouraged a higher compliance rate amongst users because it addressed this worry that was a barrier to compliance.
Plus One: Communication
At the heart of it all is communication. Never underestimate the power of communication as it will determine the success or failure of our move towards becoming a health and safety-ready organisation or brand. For all 4 steps we had mentioned, the game-changer is indeed communication. We have to communicate consistently to maintain awareness, conduct assessments, rollout action plans and perform audits of our product, people and processes, as well as to obtain feedback for the implementation of mitigation and control plans.
Health and Safety is now a key ingredient of our business recovery. It is now a core concern of building and winning trust amongst our stakeholders. We have to invest in it to ensure that workforce will be able to return to work and carry out their task comfortably while customers must trust that it is safe and healthy doing business with us.
Chang Li-Yen, Ph.D. is currently an Associate Professor at University of Malaya’s Department of Medical Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine. She has extensive knowledge and experience working with highly virulent pathogen in high biocontainment facilities. She is also an Expert Advisor on Health and Safety to the Communications Leadership Academy.
Andy See is the Founder and Managing Director of Perspective Strategies, a strategic communications and issues management consultancy. He is also the President of the Public Relations and Communications Association of Malaysia (PRCA Malaysia) and Regional Vice President (Asia Pacific) for Public Relations Global Network.