Before the year 2020 crash landed into our realities, the term “workplace health and safety” often drew a chorus of groans. The current pandemic has hugely affected the mindset of business strategists devising the best method to approach a world riddled with viral outbreaks. The challenge for business became strategizing how to effectively operate alongside very present viral concerns. How can we ensure our workplace retains the confidence of employees upon return?

To ensure continuity of operations and essential functions, the CDC advises that workplaces may be permitted to continue, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the surrounding community from COVID-19. These measures include employee pre-screen checks, regular monitoring, wearing a mask, social distancing and disinfection protocols. While it’s reassuring that businesses have concrete steps they can take to operate the workplace virus-free, why has it taken a global viral outbreak for companies to prioritize employee safety?

Employee safety meant business safety

While it has existed as a proverbial box-ticking exercise for the majority of adhering businesses before 2020, health and safety in the workplace is now being placed on a different pedestal. Conventionally, employee safety existed to protect workers and address a business’s perceived risks, such as conforming to task procedures and equipment maintenance. Safety checks were put in place, not only to protect the employee, but to protect the business.

Overall employee safety meant a smoother running of operations, less damage control, and a stable workforce. When it proved insufficient, the most likely threat to a company’s day-to-day operations, or the worst-case scenario, would result in financial penalties, reputational damage, and staff instability. In the event of employee safety being jeopardized, this might halt operations temporarily in a department, but business operations would likely continue.

Like it or not, employee safety among all else has existed as just another business consideration.

Setting aside the obvious moral standing on the motivations for employee safety, most companies institute safety protocols based on the potential dangers of their specific industry, not on scenarios from a Hollywood disaster movie. A mining company, for example, will have a higher commitment to safely conducting certain high-risk activities than a convenience store, since the potential financial pitfalls (law suits) that could result from not having the required safety checks in place would leave companies financially vulnerable.

Nevertheless, the onset of a viral contagion remained highly unlikely to be part of any company’s potential workplace scenario before the start of the year, including high-risk professions. Essentially, the prioritization of employee safety was calculated based upon the potential negative outcomes to which a company could be exposed, and a global pandemic was not one of them.

Safety has taken on a whole new meaning

But in a world combating a global pandemic, the term “employee safety” has taken on a whole new meaning. Employee safety now must confront a viral outbreak. Therefore, the current requirements to achieve employee safety have become much more stringent, and an inability to protect employees has forced several businesses to halt operations—some permanently. Employee safety today is more than just an afterthought, it has become integral to survival, in more ways than one.

Before 2020, safety solutions in the workplace were fragmented and often existed in a makeshift capacity, one supplier would tend to disinfectant liquids, while a different one would provide safety equipment. Workplace hazards have until now been addressed with employers implementing various solutions, each intended to address each specific danger. No comprehensive solution, encompassing all the required safety checks, has been available to quell the headache for employers.

This pick’n’choose approach has forced employers to re-assess how effective solutions can be implemented in the future, especially during the pandemic. From addressing supply shortages to general discomfort, the lingering pragmatic difficulties with current PPE options has also put a cap on business owners trying to navigate current waters.

Let’s get smart

To address pragmatic difficulties requires the development of well-thought-out, smart-PPE, or personal protective equipment, protocols at work. The development of PPE, such as gowns, nitrile gloves, head covers, shoe covers, face and eye protection (face masks, face shields), and sanitization products (sanitizers, disinfection wipes), could be instituted into a company tailored protocol. These forms of response will act as a key first step in creating smart, efficient, and effective measures to facilitate much sought-after workplace confidence, something which is sorely lacking.

Let’s not be naive about the realities of safety until this point. Businesses always valued employee safety as a form of protecting the employee, sure, but more primarily to protect their own interests. Twenty-twenty has blind-sided pretty much every industry, to the point where confirming employee safety requires a whole new set of priorities. The bar for achieving these priorities might discourage some, but it will also act as an opportunity for others. Businesses now require an effective long-term strategy to combat potential dangers moving forward, and without a protocol encompassing the spreading of infection, that may not be possible.

Written by Omri Shafran, CEO of Texas Medical Technology