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June 30, 2020

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return to work

Managing a safe return to work after lockdown

Businesses across the country have nervously been watching plans to restart the economy after the coronavirus lockdown. Now that many can at last start to open up again, it is plain that operating conditions will be complex and will put heavy demands on management to ensure workers and the public are protected from infection. For many, squaring the new safety requirements with a profitable business model is a conundrum that is difficult to solve. Thorough planning, careful risk assessment and regular evaluation will be key to implementing protective measures in a way that is effective but not a hindrance to business success. Offering some guidance on business recovery management, global operations and safety management consultancy DuPont Sustainable Solutions has put together some tips and a checklist to help businesses manage a safe restart.

By Nicholas Bahr, Global Practice Director, Operational Risk Management, DuPont Sustainable Solutions.

There are many things that companies need to keep in mind before a return to work, particularly given the current situation. Even under normal circumstances, a restart increases the risk of a safety incident. A study by the Center for Chemical Process Safety shows that process safety incidents are five time more likely during a start-up than during normal operations. A similar study from the refining sector concludes that 50 % of process safety incidents occur during start-ups, shut downs and other non-routing activities.Process Safety IncidentsIn their focus on preventing the spread of the virus, businesses must therefore not forget to address other safety risks. The extended shut down caused by COVID-19 just makes it more challenging. The difficulty of developing a comprehensive restart plan may seem overwhelming, so it is useful to use the following steps as guidance.

1. Understand your readiness to restart

Before restarting, it is critical to understand how the pandemic has affected your organisation and to assess your organisation’s readiness to return to work. Remember that the inherent risks in your business have not disappeared just because of the pandemic. Therefore, when assessing your risks, do not just focus on those that have been brought about by COVID-19, but look at all the risks your company faces. You need to have a clear understanding of the implications of the following: employees returning to work, changes in the status of equipment and facilities, availability of financial resources, new government regulations relating to COVID-19, changes in supplier, customer and/or distribution capabilities, new demand patterns, possible sources of infection, new risk exposures, etc.

Have you developed a restart plan that covers all critical aspects such as a cross-departmental plan for a safe return to work including social distancing and provision of PPE, a restart budget and resourcing plan that includes training so staff can manage the new COVID-19 safety measures and backup in case of a wave of infections?

Where would you be in the quadrant below?


2. Ensure employee wellbeing and greater risk awareness

To say that employees are your most important asset during this time is an understatement. They will be concerned about how COVID-19 will change their work environment, their commute and social interaction when they return to their jobs. While social distancing recommendations will be familiar to most, applying them in an operations or commercial setting and limiting the spread of the virus on the way to and back from work will be a challenge for many. Companies will not only need to communicate protective steps efficiently to their employees and entire ecosystem but will also have to ensure their adoption through training, coaching, tracking and transforming the culture in the workplace.

Understanding how people think and instinctively react to risk is key to preventing safety incidents. Habits, behavioural patterns, past experiences, as well as emotions all have an impact on how people take decisions and react to new risks such as the current virus. Nudge theory, team dynamics, affective psychology and persuasive communication can all be employed to improve risk awareness and change risky behaviour while Smart PPE can help with social distancing, to ensure compliance with new restrictions and even contact tracing on site.

It will also be important to take steps that ensure employees cope well with the emotional strain of the pandemic. Show sensitivity and take steps to address their concerns. Provide them with the necessary tools to enable them to work safely and confidently and establish a work environment that is supportive and caring. Don’t be reluctant to adjust existing policies if necessary. And be sure to check-in often with all employees to proactively seek their thoughts and input.

Furthermore, people do tend to become inured to risk over time.  Within countries that have fully reopened, we are seeing that many are becoming more comfortable coping with risk and some are reverting to pre-coronavirus habits.  It is important to prepare your employees on how to limit acclimation and tolerance of COVID-19 risks within the workplace, and as they begin to interact with clients and customers.

3. Design an agile governance system

Organisations will need to align the company’s standard operating procedure with the new status quo. That goes from details such as integrating new hygiene measures into the permit to work to adapting to a changed market. Organisations will need to re-examine their management systems and adapt to the new reality of work under COVID-19. By setting up an Executive Recovery Committee (ERC) made up of senior managers from all aspects of the business including safety professionals, companies can identify business critical processes, appropriately prioritise restart activities and take the necessary decisions quickly and efficiently. The ERC should consider situational constraints, business and operational goals and input from all risk assessments and scenario planning. It should also ensure that necessary resources (manpower, financial, etc.) are made available and establish performance measures to keep initiatives on track for a successful restart.

As some employees return to work, others in the same organisation may continue to work from home, including management staff. Given their remote location, it will be challenging to oversee operational discipline on site, provide guidance on any operational failure directly, check adherence to the new safety measures, manage the exposure of employees and contractors and control the volume of psychosocial risks. There are, however, safety technologies that can connect operators and managers or engineers to assess and address failures in real-time and techniques for influencing behaviours at a distance that managers can employ. It is also possible to introduce digital processes which are easy for employees to manage on a smartphone such as a restart & recovery checklist or a daily COVID-19 check-in, and there is a range of specialist digital technology that can monitor health and safety compliance.

Finally, it is important to remember that the ERC’s responsibilities will not end as soon as restart occurs. It will be vital that the ERC review progress, track the implementation of measures and adjust any plans as necessary to ensure their long-term success.

4. Carry out new risk assessments and scenario planning

Assessing the current risks facing the business and considering various credible scenarios that could impact the company are critical to effective restart planning. Again, remember that the inherent risks faced by your organisation still exist. A thorough risk assessment should consider those risks as well as any additional risks resulting from COVID-19.

Before initiating a restart, companies should ensure all equipment and systems are fully ready to operate. They will need to conduct a hazard identification and risk assessment on each operating unit to make sure it can restart safely and without incident. The most efficient way to do so is to engage operating personnel and seek their input. After all, as they work on the shop floor or on-site, they are in the best position to know and identify existing or potential new hazards.

Organisations should also determine critical controls, assess them for integrity, and inspect and test them for proper functionality. If it is determined that additional controls are necessary, they should be implemented before any restart occurs. At this point, a comprehensive start up procedure should be developed to guide all restart activities, and it should be reviewed with operating personnel and their feedback and input should be incorporated. Detailed pre-start-up checklists should also be prepared for personnel to use. Managers and appropriate company leaders should be involved and walk the line to participate in all readiness assessments. Identify failure modes and model each scenario. Take into account social distancing needs and redesign workflows accordingly. Then develop and implement necessary preventative and mitigative actions, and make sure contingency plans are in place. If deficiencies are identified, they should be addressed, and the assessment should be repeated. Once all operations are determined to be ready for safe restart, the ERC should be briefed on all readiness efforts and provide its approval to proceed with start-up.

The more thorough a company’s risk assessment and scenario planning, the better its chances for a sustained, successful restart. Consider departmental dependencies. Be sure to establish and monitor performance indicators and leverage all available data. Smart technology can be used to monitor, and control safe distancing, hands-free collaboration and application of restrictions and digital training and learning tools can be used to help employees implement them. Assessments and scenarios should be reviewed with the ERC for alignment. Finally, remember to continually update scenario models and risk assessments with new information and data as it becomes available.

5. Ensure adequate resourcing

Human resources may be significantly strained during this time. There are reports of labour shortages in the construction industry which may force companies to engage new contractors with a different level of training, for instance. Businesses will therefore need to determine the minimum resources required to meet their critical needs and then fully understand the competencies required for that personnel. As highlighted by the example above, companies will have to have a firm grasp of the availability of necessary resources and the need for any back-up crews, and prepare for the possibility that any resources brought in to supplement the required workforce may not have previous experience or adequate competencies and will therefore require some level of assessment and training.

6. Prompt and open communication

Because restarting operations and maintaining momentum behind a successful restart is a fluid endeavour with numerous variables to consider, it is very important to build and maintain clear lines of communication, both internally and externally. The company’s recovery plan should be shared among all employees, and communication mechanisms between leadership, managers and front-line workers should be in place to track progress of the plan and respond to direct input from workers implementing it. Their input should be actively encouraged, and any concerns raised or ideas proposed should be acted upon promptly.


COVID-19 has resulted in a business environment the likes of which few, if any, companies have ever experienced. The path ahead contains numerous challenges and additional unforeseen risks for organisations that are eager to resume operations. While it will not be “business as usual,” with thoughtful and deliberate planning companies can develop a process for safely resuming operations with a workforce that is prepared, confident and assured of its wellbeing; a safe restart that minimises disruption and ultimately improves operations; and an organisation that is fully in control of its plan to recover to pre-disruption performance levels despite today’s uncertainties.

Checklist for a Safe Return to Work

If your business is preparing for a restart, there are critical safety, operational and communication measures that you must address. To ensure adequate preparation, have you:

☐ Understood and met the current legal/regulatory requirements incl. separation in space, protective equipment, infection control?
☐ Conducted a new risk assessment and adapted safety management accordingly?
☐ Checked critical controls, assessed them for integrity, and inspected and tested them for proper functionality?
☐ Tested that all equipment and assets are ready and safe for operation?
☐ Communicated new risks to employees and provided them with training to be aware of and manage these risks?
☐ Ensured that critical processes and safeguards are adequately managed and resourced even if production capacity may have changed?
☐ Adapted work instructions?
☐ Put in plans measures to work under remote management control if necessary.
☐ Engaged your workforce and put together a cross-departmental plan for safe return to work?
☐ Prepared appropriate equipment, a proper work environment and adequate mental support to prevent infection at work and to ensure the wellbeing of your employees?
☐ Developed a list of prioritized critical workstreams and restart activities (integrated plan)?
☐ Anticipated a number of scenarios that consider internal and external dynamics, and put in place alternate plans?
☐ Identified meaningful indicators that will allow you to respond swiftly in the event of a scenario change?
☐ Developed an adequate restart budget and resourcing plan that includes training and backup?
☐ Prepared a rigorous operational pre-start-up review checklist and planned to complete it prior to restart with sufficient time to address deficiencies?
☐ Communicated your plan to your stakeholders, including your workforce and customers and put in plans systems for ongoing clear and prompt communication?

1 CCPS. Guidelines for Safe Process Operations and Maintenance. 1995; p 113, citing Large Property Damage Losses in the Hydrocarbon-Chemical Industries. Marsh McLennan, 14th edition, New York, NY, 19922

2 Otrowski, S.W.; Keim, K.K. Tame Your Transient Operations: Use a special method to identify and address potential hazards. [Online]. July 23, 2010

Approaches to managing the risks associated Musculoskeletal disorders

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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Otebele, Gabriel
Otebele, Gabriel
3 years ago

Thanks . This material is very timely and informative for this period.