Health, Safety, and Environment (HSE) protocols play a vital role in making work environments safer. According to the US Census Bureau there were an estimated 27.5 million migrant workers in the country in 2019. The manufacturing sector is the largest employer with 10.8% of the entire migrant workforce. This is followed by construction (9.9%), retail (8.8%), and energy and mining (8.1%). The risk of occupational hazards is in these sectors is considerable. The COVID-19 situation created additional risks. It left many employers ill-equipped to deal with the new hazards. HSE policies were found incomplete, and required updating. This necessitated radical changes in HSE management practices in US industry. There is a need to better understand how these changes affect the workforce, particularly migrant workers.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) wing of the US Department of Labor has issued a set of interim guidelines. These are general guidelines which apply to most American workers and employers. These interim measures include maintaining a distance of 6 feet between workers, performing frequent medical checks, and promptly isolating cases of suspected infection. Workers must maintain hygiene by periodically washing their hands or disinfecting with at least 60% alcohol-based sanitizer. Employees must wear masks and gloves at all times while at work.
The OSHA makes it the employers’ responsibility to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including masks, gowns, face shields, and gloves to their workers. The guidelines further specify the kind of PPE to be used for types of work, and whether it must include respiratory protection. Further, OSHA urges employers to adequately train employees on the appropriate use and disposal of PPE.
Implementing these changes comes with some initial challenges for employers. Training employees on the new SOPs (standard operating procedures) and equipment involves financial and time costs. So does ensuring the availability of PPE and sanitizers. Some PPE is designed for single use only. Employers must also increase supervision to ensure the proper implementation of these guidelines.
The consequences of failure can be drastic. The possibility of infection puts the entire workforce at risk. One case of infection can cause a complete business unit to shut down. This can have severe financial impacts. Employers are being very diligent in implementing the new guidelines.
Manufacturing and energy
There are specific guidelines to prevent infection in key sectors of industry. These are rolled out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HSE management in industries with assembly lines involves spacing workers and having them work side-by-side instead of facing one another. Physical barriers to separate workers will be required, with small windows for passing materials. Companies will carry out assessments of their heating and ventilation systems to evaluate risks of potential exposure. Giants such as Ford and Hewlett-Packard are thinking on the lines of redesigning entire factories. Shell, Exxon Mobil, and others in the energy sector will have to perform fresh hazard assessments to understand risks and implement appropriate safety measures.
Chem and pharma
Chemical and pharmaceutical industry firms such as DuPont have stated to use puncture resistant PPE suits. Their laboratories would have to meet the required biosafety standards in accordance with the revised guidelines. Other recommendations include staggering workers’ breaks to avoid the formation of groups.
Construction companies will be asked to conduct thorough job hazard analyses. They would be allowed to only carry out jobs with permissible risk exposure. Companies like Bechtel and Turner Corporation have had to erect plastic sheet barriers for workers active in a certain area for a long period. All visitors to construction sites must be screened. This includes logistics personnel transporting site supplies. Workers’ contact with visitors must be avoided or minimized. Employers would make staggered work schedules to avoid overcrowding the construction sites. Site supervisors will assume the additional responsibilities of identifying choke points which may become crowded, and implementing social distancing. These precautions would apply to hallways, elevators, break rooms, and entry/exit gates.
Retail outlets must now place restrictions on the number of customers allowed inside their stores. They must use rope and stanchion barriers along with appropriate signage to channel foot traffic and prevent overcrowding. Stores would need sufficiently sized waiting areas at 6 feet from the billing counters. Large franchise outlets such as Wal-Mart and Target are already expanding the number of self-checkout kiosks in their stores to minimize the interaction between employees and customers. Retail companies must regularly disinfect credit card terminals and other points of contact. Workstations and terminals will be thoroughly sanitized with every shift change.
The new safety guidelines apply as much to workers as to employers. Being infected poses the risk of loss of livelihood for several weeks. Millions of migrant workers support their families back home with remittances sent via international money transfers. For them, being exposed to unnecessary risk is simply not an option. The new safety guidelines have the uncompromising support of all stakeholders. HSE management will continue to evolve in many sectors in the months to come.
About the author:
Hemant G is a contributing writer at Sparkwebs LLC, a Digital and Content Marketing Agency. When he’s not writing, he loves to travel, scuba dive, and watch documentaries.