When it comes to managing unusual, unanticipated events, such as the potential spread of COVID-19, or environmental disasters such as floods or wildfires, the key is planning.
But how do you plan for an unanticipated event? If you’re experienced in health and safety you already have a tool that you are an expert at using to plan for routine tasks such as manual handling or work at height – a risk assessment.
While we can’t predict whether COVID-19 will burn itself out, or turn into a pandemic, we can use a risk assessment process to consider what the consequences would be to our organisations of widespread illnesses, or damage to infrastructure through weather, civil unrest or terrorism.
Start by identifying essential resources, and considering what would happen if it were lost or reduced. You don’t need to be able to predict precisely what the cause of the loss could be to work through the consequences. We’ll look here at some of the top resources to risk assess, and some mitigation you might need to put in place. The examples here relate to safety, but a similar approach can be used to business continuity.
If people are ill, or have to ‘self-isolate’, if the schools are closed and they have to look after their children, if the roads are closed or the trains on strike, the impact on the organisation is the same – insufficient people to carry out work safely. In particular, consider safety-critical roles such as:
- First-aiders and fire wardens
- Supervisors, security and maintenance staff
- Client-facing staff.
- Identify critical roles in the organisation. Understand your minimum safe staffing levels.
- Make arrangements for remote working where possible.
- Train people to be multi-skilled, to provide flexibility in covering critical roles with the people available. For example, cross-training operational and maintenance staff.
- When planning first-aid and fire warden provision, consider the impact of absences, and decide priorities in advance.
- Find out what your organisation’s sickness absence management policy is (see Limiting the spread of a virus). Challenge this if the policy might encourage sick people to come to work.
Insufficient supplies to work safely. If your suppliers are suffering from a labour shortage, or logistics issues, how many days of critical supplies do you have? Consider what additional supplies you might need in an emergency, including soap, tissues, cleaning materials, and additional collections of waste.
Identify safety critical supplies, and determine appropriate inventory levels. Disposable ear buds and filters for RPE are obvious examples, but think too about service contracts. What happens if the fire alarms or emergency lighting stops working? What if the fire shutter is stuck? If your service contractors can’t get to you to effect a repair, what back up do you have?
Insufficient water resulting in hygiene concerns, lack of power for safety systems and safe working.
Some organisations can’t operate without water and electricity or gas, while others can carry on - for a while. Find out how many hours of water is stored in your water tanks, and what back up power there is. Identifying critical roles in advance will speed decision-making. If you know there is only enough water for 100 toilet flushes, and there are 100 people in the building, sending 90 home so that the critical 10 people can work for longer will be an easier decision to make.
Buildings become unusable because of conditions (eg floor, storm, riot). This could also be a consequence of a lack of people to maintain and manage a building.
Can essential functions be moved to alternative accommodation? In advance agree:
- Which functions are essential.
- Where people will go.
- How they will find out where to go
Failure of safety systems, eg lack of smoke detection resulting in delayed alerting, lack of emergency lighting leading to accidents during evacuation.
- Establish how long battery or generator back-ups will last for emergency lighting, fire alarms, security, light curtains.
- Understand which systems will fail-safe, and which will just fail.
- Agree in advance a minimum safe level of cover, and alternative arrangements. For example, do you have enough people to carry out a fire-watch if smoke detection and alerting isn’t available?
Limiting the spread of a virus
We haven’t repeated widely available information on how to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, as it could so quickly become out of date. Check the latest advice from your own national government or health service, or from the World Health Organisation. Some useful links are listed at the end.
However, considering how your sickness absence policy, and where relevant, customer-refund policy, impacts the spread of illness will be useful even if COVID-19 goes away. From seasonal flu to the common cold, organisations cope better if they have good management of sickness absence.
In the UK, someone can self-certificate their own sickness absence for up to 7 days. But current advice is that people who might have come into contact with COVID-19 should self-isolate for 14 days. If your organisation’s policy is that no certificate means no pay, employees might feel compelled to turn up to work rather than lose their income.
While a salaried employee is entitled to sick pay, someone with a zero-hours contract could be in the situation of no work means no pay. As these people are often in jobs with the greatest potential to spread illness – in catering, in cleaning, as delivery drivers – organisations using zero-hours contracts need to consider discretionary sick pay if they don’t want to be responsible for spreading illness further.
If you are a customer-facing organisation consider too what flexibility you have in your refund policy. Someone who is advised to cancel a holiday, a theatre trip or a hotel booking to self-isolate might not be covered by insurance. If they are going to lose the whole cost, they might just decide to “take a risk”, potentially spreading the virus around your organisation.
Some cruise companies, for example, have provided a more generous refund policy during this crisis than usual, allowing customers to move their booking to a later date at no charge. In the short term, it’s an additional burden on the business, but the alternative could be much more damaging.
Links for information on COVID-19