Organisations across the country have had to stop, re-evaluate and realign their work processes and practices in light of the global pandemic we have come to know as Coronavirus or COVID-19. This pandemic may continue to have significant implications on the manufacturing and supply chain markets globally for years to come. Mary Kikas discusses some key safety considerations for organisations as part of the recovery process.

Over the years, I have worked for some manufacturing heavyweights, such as Robert Bosch Australia, the Ford Motor Company of Australia, BASF and OI, to name a few. I have steadily watched Australia’s manufacturing capability slowly leave our shores as we have restructured operations through outsourcing and offshoring of activities. This has occurred despite exemplary, locally driven productivity and quality outcomes.

COVID-19 has no doubt impacted the sector further, resulting in unprecedented consequences for manufacturers and supply chains. Risk mitigation strategies for the manufacturing and supply chain sector require integration between existing safety practices combined with new approaches. Collaboration with designers, technology companies and our industry bodies will be paramount, to increase sustainability and resilience in the current market.

From an occupational or work health and safety (OHS/WHS) perspective there are far-reaching implications around how we reimagine safe systems of work. We need to carefully review how work is undertaken and how we will communicate with our workers, suppliers, customers and visitors going forward.

With the gradual lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, consideration must be given to business-as-usual activities and what this might look like: Will social distancing, daily cleaning regimes and so on be the norm within workplaces? How will this affect operations, productivity, customer service and profit? How will organisations ensure effective monitoring of these practices in their workplace?

Furthermore, do we need to consider and explore technological solutions such as touchless human-machine interfaces for sign-in to our workplaces and for machine operations as a new industrial revolution takes hold of our sense of the normative?

In recent years, organisations have spent an enormous amount of time and resources exploring online software and smartphone app solutions to manage entry and exit to work locations (in terms of security), effective emergency preparedness and contractor management systems. As part of this process, workplace screening protocols (for COVID-19) must be considered before we allow any person to enter our workplace. This must apply not only to the existing workforce but also to all other persons who access the workplace. What can this look like and will our business-as-usual activities include temperature checks, self-reporting and signed declarations of no potential for exposure to the virus?

OHS considerations for the near future

For the foreseeable future, consideration to safe systems of work must extend to effective behaviours such as social distancing and good hygiene practices (i.e. hand and respiratory), including monitoring these practices through supervision.

Monitoring will be key to ensure appropriate separation and social distancing measures. This must be done in accordance with the best available advice and evidence provided by the Federal Government, in consultation with our country’s leading medical experts. Organisations will need to consider a review and audit of their sites and processes to inform possible redesign of their traffic management systems to ensure that they eliminate or limit person-to-person contact.

Similarly, a review should be undertaken of administrative offices – which are typically open plan – and production lines, where operators, technical tradespersons and/or engineers must work alongside each other. Consideration must be given to changing layouts and/or a level of redesign of the floorplan and other touch points where employees and contractors must interact. This can include a review of the location and proximity of fixed plant and equipment with consideration to safe access for maintenance/service personnel.

Common areas – such as employee facilities and amenities that provided for worker health, safety, welfare and personal hygiene needs – must encompass appropriate social distancing measures and prevention of cross contamination through cleaning schedules and practices. Organisations must investigate the suitability of existing cleaning and infection control practices through the use and application of suitable disinfectants and other products designed to kill and eliminate any residual bacterial or viral contamination.

Beyond the operational implications to the organisation, a risk management plan specifically targeted to address COVID-19 risks and risk treatments must be developed, implemented, monitored and regularly reviewed. Furthermore, business continuity and disaster recovery planning must be front of mind and warrant a review of existing protocols and strategies, in light of the ramifications on the workforce and also the broader business as a result of the current pandemic.

It is now more important than ever for organisations to engage suitably qualified and experienced OHS/WHS professionals to inform processes and ensure that effective risk management strategies are implemented. Ultimately, this will assist organisations to meet their legal duties, in accordance with OHS/WHS legislation, and keep their workers safe at work.

Mary Kikas is a Senior OHS and Ergonomics Consultant at Action OHS Consulting.