As we continue to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, our role as OSH professionals continues to evolve. Early on, we mitigated risks based on limited information. With more research and experience, we have been able to sharpen our focus on preventing transmission via respiratory droplets and aerosols, while focusing less on contaminated surfaces. In fact, studies are showing that universal masking likely reduces the dose of virus and, therefore, the response or degree of illness. Achieving universal masking is a challenge, but that public health strategy along with physical distancing, favoring outdoor spaces and following proper personal hygiene practices remain our best approach.
In the next phases of the pandemic, we will need to consider advances in testing and how more sensitive rapid tests might allow our organizations to find and isolate positive individuals before they infect others. Once vaccines are available, we may be responsible for determining the vaccine administration process for our workplaces. Developing or managing these processes may differ greatly from the work we performed before the pandemic or even 6 months ago.
Many of us have become a go-to resource for our senior leaders. With that increased visibility, how do we evolve our role? Here are five things we should do.
- Anticipate needs. What information will leadership need to make good decisions that protect workers and the organization? Start by considering scenarios that are plausible and develop safe practices. For example, if COVID-19 immunization is offered at your site in the future, how and where could that process be organized in a safe way for several thousand workers? Or, in a more common scenario, how could audiometric testing be performed safely if a van service is used biannually?
- Provide credible guidance. To do so, we need to keep up with the latest research. As always, we must be sure to review the primary source of the data and critically evaluate that source, not just an opinion or a news report. One helpful change that has occurred during this global pandemic is the speed at which medical research on COVID-19 gets to the public. One example is medRxiv, a preprint server that posts preliminary reports in the health sciences that are not yet peer reviewed. Thousands of reports are available, but it is important to remember that not all are accurate and may be removed after peer review. Be sure to look for multiple studies and consider the source as you normally would.
- Provide informed risk analysis. At the beginning of the pandemic, many of our plans were based on limited knowledge. Now that we know more, we should reevaluate risks at different sites or in different circumstances. Analyze the local situation regarding the number of COVID-19 cases or positivity rate and based on tasks with high or moderate COVID-19 risks. For example, suppose a construction site is using a third-party vendor to disinfect outdoor equipment each week. Data indicate the county where the site is located has a low level of cases, and, since we know that respiratory transmission is more likely, mitigation efforts can shift to different methods of prevention. Similarly, if colder weather requires holding meetings in a construction trailer with poor ventilation, focus on mitigating that risk.
- Develop practical solutions based on the hierarchy of controls. This should always be our focus as OSH professionals, but it bears repeating. Effective controls that significantly reduce risk and are also practical will best protect workers and gain leadership support.
- Use the learnings to modify plans and continuously improve your pandemic response. Willingness to learn and adapt is critical to evolving our role and elevating our contributions.
We have more visibility than ever before. Let's use this opportunity to evolve our role and transform the most challenging circumstance in our careers into a means to enhance our careers.