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Remember: COVID-19 Isn’t the Only Health and Safety Risk Out There

Toby Graham /

The other day I woke up with a splitting headache and an itch in my throat. Under normal circumstances, I would assume this was due to something benign like allergies or poor sleep, or maybe the beginning of a cold. But this is 2020, when the circumstances are anything but normal, and every unfamiliar sensation seems like a cause for alarm.

That’s when I went into full hypochondriac mode.

I Googled my symptoms, my temperature, news of recent COVID-19 cases in my area, early signs of infection. Before long, I was looking at a dozen articles, data sources, bulletins, and research abstracts, scrolling through the CDC, WebMD, Medscape, and Johns Hopkins University. Nothing was making me feel any better—physically or emotionally.

I noticed the time. Nearly two hours had passed since I woke up and I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. I shuffled into the kitchen, my eyes glued to a video about mortality rates, and fumbled around for yogurt and strawberries, which I began cutting… while continuing to watch YouTube.

You can probably guess what happened next. I nicked my finger. It was one of those minor but dramatic-looking injuries—blood all over the kitchen counter, knife clattering into the sink. I patched it up with a few Band-Aids.

Of course I’m feeling better now—maybe it was just allergies, or stress—and my finger’s almost healed. But I haven’t forgotten the experience. It served as an important, comically obvious reminder that COVID-19 is just one of many dangers we face in our daily lives. In fact, compared to the risk of catching and dying from the coronavirus, your chances of suffering a serious accident at home are arguably greater.

The same holds true for workplace incidents.

While many employers are rightly concerned about COVID-19 right now, its existence doesn’t negate the risks of falls, chemical spills, forklift accidents, and other common occupational hazards

Worryingly, it seems that rates of these non-viral perils are increasing during the pandemic. Over at EHS Today, Alfonsius Ariawan, a global solutions architect with DuPont Sustainable Solutions, writes about recent incidents—an explosion in Italy, a deadly styrene leak in India, a fire in the UK—that facilities have experienced in the wake of the coronavirus crisis:

“It seems that as companies scrambled to address the health risks of COVID-19 in their workplaces, they have not paid enough attention to other safety risks. Companies need to refocus their attention and ensure all safety risks are managed within the context of the COVID-19 reality.”

According to Ariawan, COVID-19 has not only siphoned resources and attention from other safety concerns, but produced numerous “risk accelerators.” Examples include cost reductions, labor shortages, deferred maintenance, fatigue and mental stress, reliance on untrained or inexperienced workers, and all the complexity and uncertainty thereof.

One of the most consequential risk accelerators is the pressure to return employees to work as fast as possible:

“The impact of the pandemic on companies’ financial performance has also put tremendous pressure on those that shut down to restart and recover quickly. The consequence has been a rush to restart with little or poor planning, which has markedly increased the chances of safety incidents. As a study by the Center for Chemical Process Safety has shown, process safety incidents are five times more likely to occur after shutdown than during normal operations.”

Ariawan calls on organizations to remember the various non-COVID-related risks their workers face, and to balance infectious disease response measures with other EHS demands. His advice (emphasis added):

1. “Consider thoroughly assessing your safety risks in light of any changes and decisions that may have been implemented specifically related to the pandemic. Not only are pre-pandemic risks still present, but their profile has likely shifted.”

2. “As you validate your risk profile, take the opportunity to review all your existing critical controls. Ensure that they are still effective and have not been impacted by decisions made in response to COVID-19[.]”

3. “Most importantly, refocus your attention to your people. The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis that none of us has experienced before. Many employees are distracted. Some have been absent from the operational setting for some time due to reasons such as illnesses, family needs, or furlough. Retraining or recalibration of risk awareness may be necessary.”

Read “Refocusing Attention on Safety: A Call to Action.”

KPA can help you manage all of the above through a powerful EHS platform that combines consulting, software, and award-winning training. Learn about our COVID-19 Safety Program.

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