How to Avoid “Workplace Fog”

Posted by Mark Roman on August 11, 2020

As the country starts to get back to work and our returning work force expands, we need to maintain our focus on getting back to basics.

The issue is what I call “workplace fog,” which is leading to many workplace mistakes that result in issues and accidents that can have serious consequences.
It’s been a very stressful time for the last several months, and it looks like these stressful times are not going to let up any time soon. And when confronted with all the economic, health, personal, and social issues we are facing – all at once – we can have a hard time keeping our head in the game.

As we return to work or expand our work force at our facilities, it’s time to refocus on issues we have control over right now – the workplace – and not let stress and a new emphasis on COVID-19-related issues cloud our judgment when it comes to routine EH&S issues.

We have to keep our teams safe and productive in this new reality and avoid simple mistakes, because the safety of our employees is at stake, and regulators are not loosening the reins on complying with EH&S regulations.

We need to regain our focus at the workplace, otherwise we can have issues occurring at our facilities, similar to the following:

I received a call from a client the other day. He forgot to submit a mandatory monthly monitoring report to regulators last month and, because he had never missed filing a report before, needed to know how to remedy the situation. When I asked what happened… he said he had no explanation; he simply forgot - it just didn’t occur to him that he needed to submit the report. That’s the “workplace fog” I’m talking about. We are so focused on the current state of affairs that we are starting to overlook the routine, yet very important issues that we do have control over.

And there are plenty more examples in the Envision Environmental team’s recent experience.
We are starting to get back into facilities to work with clients, wearing PPE and maintaining social/workplace distancing; and as a result, we are seeing more and more facilities experiencing this “workplace fog”. Some facilities that have gone hundreds of days without a workplace accident or incident are now seeing that streak broken.

We’re seeing facilities that have well established EH&S programs and policies in place with a strong compliance history, starting to experience “workplace fog” related issues.

We came across a significant issue when we were walking through one section of a facility recently where the maintenance crew was about to start working on a transfer pump. The crew had on the appropriate PPE and were observing, as best as possible, workplace distancing. However, we noticed that the transfer pump did not appear to be properly de-energized. Turns out the members of the maintenance crew just assumed someone else in the crew de-energized the pump through their Lock Out/Tag Out procedure – but no one had completed that task. Luckily, this issue was identified before an accident occurred and the pump was properly de-energized before the crew continued with their work.

It’s an extreme but not uncommon example of this “workplace fog”. With all of the COVID-19 related extra policies and procedures that have been put into place, it is even more important than ever to pay attention to everything that is happening at your facility.

The following are some common, more easily avoidable issues that we are seeing lately. The easiest way to make sure these routine issues are being addressed and not disappearing in the “workplace fog” is to utilize a written protocol, program or schedule to keep track of your routine tasks.

1. Monitoring and Reporting

Many facilities have permits that have monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or even annual reporting requirements. Make sure you keep track of when you need to conduct any monitoring and when your reports must be submitted to the regulators to stay in compliance. Keep that schedule front and center on your computer, at your desk or near your workstation.

2. Routine Maintenance and Inspections

We’ve noticed that there has been a noticeable dip in facilities conducting their standard inspection and maintenance of equipment. Revisit your pre-pandemic preventative maintenance schedule and stick to it.

3. Standard Safety Protocols

We’ve also found that some facilities are simply “forgetting” to follow EH&S programs and policies that have been in place for years – and that are industry standard practices to boot. I mentioned the Lock Out/Tag Out issue we found at one facility. At another facility, we found drums full of flammable material that had not been properly grounded, even though all the necessary materials to do so were located next to each drum. It only took a few minutes to safely ground the drums. This facility now posts a checklist in the drum area that must be filled out during every shift. Confirmation that the drums are properly grounded is just one of the key items that must be verified now.

4. Forklift Accidents

People are distracted, thinking about other things. But at work, when lives are on the line, you need to stay focused on the here and now. Forklift operators must pay extra attention these days – so must those who are walking through a facility. Watch where you’re going and what is going on around you.

5. Machine Guarding

Pinch points in moving machinery must be safely guarded to protect employees. We are seeing equipment operators and process line workers getting injured more frequently due to this “workplace fog” when working near pinch points. Many facility workers are simply not paying attention because their focus is elsewhere these days. As a result, we recommend that pinch points be identified more readily so that they are more obvious to workers, and make sure your machine guarding in these areas is in place. Again, revisit basic safety protocols, and remind everyone that their concentration must be directed to the tasks at hand, not elsewhere.

The bottom line is that as a facility manager, you must work with your team to get everybody refocused, including those who stayed at work, as well as those returning to the job (not to mention new people coming in for the first time).

Back to Work With COVID-19

We must also account for pandemic-related safety measures, too, as our teams get back to work in terms of workspace changes, new training, new protective equipment, new procedures, and more.

Social/Workplace Distancing

Social/workplace distancing is one of the biggest “new” challenges that facilities now have to address. It can be something as simple as having separate entrances and exits so people don’t pass too closely to each other or using different stairwells for going up and going down. (Of course, that can be difficult if you only have one stairwell!)

But this also comes into place in workspaces and common areas like the breakroom. You’ll need to mark the floor with visual aids to make sure people don’t stand too close. You might need to remove tables, so people aren’t crowded together while eating lunch. Visit www.seton.com for products to help you with social/workplace distancing efforts.

I was on a webinar recently with a long-time office space designer, and she noted that after 20 years of open office arrangement, companies are now going back to the cubicle approach. We see similar changes on the production line.

Operator-controlled equipment is usually installed to centralize control panels for multiple workers. Now, centralized is not such a good thing. So, facilities are installing plexiglass dividers near these areas to protect workers when social/workplace distancing is not possible. And a lot of control panels are going mobile, so they can be wheeled around to maintain a six-foot distance from a co-worker.

We’re also seeing limits on “multiple touching” of materials. Instead of several workers transporting materials throughout the facility - from receiving, to storage, to the production line, to shipping, for example, some facilities are using the same workers to handle all of these tasks. That expands the responsibilities of the individual worker and requires additional training (see below). There might be safety issues with handling some materials, or it could be something as simple as making sure they’re lifting a heavy item correctly to reduce the chance of injury.

Confidentiality

The pandemic is a medical issue, of course, but also in a way you might not expect. Many facilities are now screening you before you go in as a worker or visitor. They ask you where you’ve traveled recently and take your temperature. But because you can’t discuss those health issues in front of others due to privacy concerns, you may need a separate room to have a confidential discussion if some of the answers to those questions, and/or the results of the temperature screening are outside of the acceptable ranges.

PPE and Disposal

In a typical facility, you usually have eye protection, hearing protection, safety shoes, etc. Now you have to expand PPE to include facial masks, face shields, and rubber gloves. That means you have another waste stream you have to deal with, and these items, once used, need to be segregated and disposed of properly.

Training

With COVID-19, there is a wealth of new information we have to convey to people, and we may not be able to rely on normal routine training to do so. We need to make adjustments to our daily behavior in order to ensure that we keep each other safe and well.

Social/workplace distancing and wearing face masks are very important, but you must also convey the importance of frequent hand washing. Just think of how many things you touch from when you get up in the morning, to when you get to work – and then all the things you touch once you get there. Multiply that by all the people in your facility. It’s amazing how many touchpoints there are, and those areas need to be addressed with new sanitization procedures.

I anticipate in-person training to be more difficult, with virtual training taking its place when possible.

Communication

Workers are now being confronted with all this information and new policies. How do you make sure they get it? Put up signage explaining social distancing and encouraging handwashing and other safety tips, for example, but keep it simple.

For more information on how to make your facility safe in these times, download this free guidance from OSHA, Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. Also handy is this poster from OSHA: Ten Steps All Workplaces Can Take to Reduce Risk of Exposure to Coronavirus.

But keep in mind that this a very dynamic situation. A lot of policy and programs are being published right now. But just like the sometimes-contradictory news reports during the pandemic, what makes sense today might not make sense tomorrow. So only utilize the latest information on COVID-19 and make frequent visits to the regulators’ websites to keep up to date.

As the country gets back to work, we’ll find out what works and what doesn’t and make adjustments as needed.

If you’re having issues with implementing pandemic-related protocols or with maintaining standard EH&S programs at this time, please call me, Mark Roman, at 609-208-1885 or send me an email at markroman@envisionenvironmental.com.

Topics: Newsletter