The last two years have been full of unique challenges and unexpected pivots that have forced the business world to adapt quickly. One function that has risen to centre stage across all businesses, regardless of industry, is safety. Whilst safety in the workplace has always been business imperative, COVID-19 forced many companies to reprioritise workplace health and safety (WHS) policies and make immediate changes to keep workers safe.

In the early stages of the pandemic, many businesses were able to enact remote working policies, shifting their operations online to protect their staff. However, those in industries such as retail and logistics, needed to employ innovative measures to allow essential services to continue functioning in-person.

As businesses and the broader society now grapple with how best to ‘live with COVID’, harmonising employee safety with business productivity is critical. Businesses need to ensure the standards of worker health and safety that have recently been imposed stay at the forefront of business operations as COVID-19 moves down the news agenda. So, how can businesses adapt new processes and bolster structures to protect their staff?

Give safety a seat at the boardroom table

In the past, many businesses have considered WHS a compliance factor – something to be ticked off a list. However, the pandemic has demonstrated how WHS can be an enabler of business, helping to identify hazards, look around the corner and mitigate risks, rather than a simple tick of the box.

A sure-fire way to leverage this is by ensuring WHS continues to have ‘a seat at the table’, along with other key stakeholders like legal, human resources, public relations and operations, to ensure that safety considerations are factored into plans. WHS will play an essential role in business plans for ‘living with COVID-19’ and enabling businesses to adapt to continually changing external conditions – whether the workforce is returning to work after working from home, are in customer-facing roles or roles that required them to work on site.  WHS can work with stakeholders to identify and mitigate risks while meeting broader company requirements, including reassuring employees.

Encourage employee engagement and input

Whilst safety measures can often be a directive from senior stakeholders, it’s imperative that employees on ground have an opportunity to input and engage. How businesses nurture and support their staff to ensure their safety concerns are heard, met and satisfied, is arguably just as important as the measures being put in place.

As a leadership team this means leading with empathy and giving everyone a voice to raise ideas and concerns, recognising the diverse perspective that may be brought. Two-way communication is mission critical.

One way this is done at Amazon, is by encouraging team members across all functions of the business to report safety concerns or suggestions through various communications channels. Amazon consults with employees before implementing any significant changes, positions anonymous feedback boxes throughout sites that are easily accessible for employees and has many other touchpoints for direct communication. Each fulfilment centre also has a ‘safety committee’ comprised of volunteers that meet monthly to discuss the effectiveness of new and existing safety measures, and suggestions from employees about how Amazon can continually improve.

These channels proved vital as the pandemic hit and Amazon quickly pivoted to introduce safety measures across its sites. From thermal temperature checks to mandatory face coverings and 2m social distancing, Amazon worked closely with its frontline workforce to educate the team about why these measures were important and to understand personal hesitations and the challenges they presented for its workforce when carrying out their roles. Similarly, Amazon consulted with its frontline teams before rolling out onsite COVID-19 testing to gauge and address concerns.

Provide education and access to resources

Beyond engaging employees, continuing to provide education and access to safety resources is key. This has been an essential tactic to deploy in relation to vaccinations and managing vaccine hesitancy within the workforce.

For example, Amazon’s approach to workforce vaccination has been empathy first, working to understand people’s hesitation and providing educational resources – from posters, emails and videos to live Q&A sessions with medical professionals – to help staff understand the importance of vaccination and empower them to choose for themselves.

Another factor instrumental to employee safety is access. Providing team members with easily accessible safety equipment, such as masks, sanitiser and where necessary testing measures, such as Rapid Antigen Tests, has helped to reduce the risk of workplace transmission and, importantly, help employees have peace of mind. Similarly, practical measures like providing access to time off and transportation measures to attend vaccination appointments helped Amazon increase uptake of vaccinations.

Look around the corner

Within Australia, businesses have the benefit of looking around the corner by viewing what is happening globally. By playing close attention to what is happening overseas, whether that’s early reporting of a new variant or how to tackle the winter season, safety professionals need to identify how this may impact their business operations and prepare, prepare and overprepare.

Key to Amazon’s success in managing COVID-19 in its workplaces has been in the preparation. In January 2020 when the virus first began to spread, the global WHS team was planning for ‘what if it becomes a pandemic’ already. This prompted a global roll out of safety measures, including social distancing and temperature checks, despite some countries not yet being impacted by COVID-19, so when the pandemic arrived local teams were already prepared.

When planning for future scenarios, companies need to assess their risk profile. Are your teams public facing or in an office? Or in a warehouse where interactions are limited largely to those who work there? Identifying your business risk factors will guide the measures required to be put in place to protect the workforce.

By giving safety a voice at the boardroom table, democratising safety in the workplace and providing employees at all levels with adequate access and education, businesses of all sizes will be in a strong position to continue protecting their employees while at work.

Niamh Joyce is senior workplace, health and safety leader at Amazon Australia.