How can employers minimise the risk of workplace accidents after furlough?

Bringing workers back from furlough is presenting employers everywhere with unique challenges and increased risks. Claire Price, from QMS International, takes a closer look at what can employers do to mitigate these risks and reduce the potential for accidents?

The results of the HSE’s 2019/20 report on health and safety at work revealed that 0.7 million workers sustained injuries at work, with another 111 losing their lives due to a work-related accident. Thanks to COVID-19 and lengthy furlough periods, it is possible that in the year 2020/21, these figures could rise. Returning furloughed workers to the workplace presents employers with unique risks, which could lead to an increase in accidents if not properly managed. These risks include out of date training, a deteriorated workplace, and distraction caused by stress and anxiety. Leaving these risks to develop could not only damage a company’s reputation, but also hit their bottom line.

According to the HSE, non-fatal accidents can cost an average of £1,400, which rises steeply to £5,100 if the employee is incapacitated for at least seven days. Fatal injuries can ruin a business, costing just shy of £100,000, a figure that does not also consider the emotional and reputational fallout from such an incident. Bringing furloughed workers back to work safely is paramount.

So, what can business do to mitigate the risks?

1. Communicate

After a long time on furlough, it is very possible that workers may find their former tasks unfamiliar. They may also be unaware of any new processes. This poses a risk to your business – if your team doesn’t know how to carry out a task properly, there is a chance that something could go wrong.

To mitigate this risk, communication is key.

An induction programme similar to that of new starters will be useful here. This can include a health & safety briefing which can also highlight any new COVID-security measures. The programme should also feature a reminder of company practices and flag up any changes to company rules and procedures.

To help returning workers familiarise themselves with their roles, you may want to try a phased return. This may also mean that you can implement increased supervision, partnering up returning workers with more senior members of the team to ensure tasks are carried out safely.

2. Offer training

While furloughed, it is very likely that some training certificates may have expired or that additional training is needed due to changes within the business.

Inadequate training can easily lead to accidents. Depending on your business, you may need to offer refreshers on fire awareness, manual handling, working at height and COSHH, among others. It is likely that training companies are booked up as a result of many businesses re-opening, so you may want to explore eLearning options so that you can train your team before they even set foot in the workplace.

3. Provide support

Anxiety and stress can lead to inattention, distraction and fatigue, all of which can increase the likelihood of mistakes being made and an accident occurring.

Isolation during furlough and multiple lockdowns, financial anxiety, grief over lost loved ones, and stress over the uncertainty of their job status may have led to an increase in mental ill health among your furloughed workers, which could now affect their performance at work. Offering well-being and mental health support is therefore crucial, although it seems that this is overlooked by many businesses. For example, in Lloyd Register’s Employee well-being during a pandemic: global insights for health and safety at work report, it found that only 15% respondents had received information and resources on employee well-being.

Speaking with returning workers and gaining an understanding of their concerns will help you to determine the type and amount of support needed. Training mental health first aiders and communicating clearly about the returning process will also help you to support them.

4. Assess the risks

Any change in your workplace should be followed by a risk assessment. As you bring workers back, it would be wise to carry them out regularly until all of your staff are re-established.

Bear in mind that your COVID-security measures may create risks elsewhere in your business. For instance, the need for greater ventilation may lead to more doors being left open. In the event of a fire, this could enable it to spread more easily. You may also still be lacking a number of fire marshals if not all workers have returned.

If you’d like a more formal process to controlling risk, you may like to think about ISO 31000, the international Standard for risk management. By building a framework that enables you to manage risks and opportunities, you can help to protect your business from internal and external threats and reduce the risk of accidents.

5. Check your workplace

If a significant portion of your workforce has been furloughed for some time, it is possible that your workplace and its equipment may no longer be in peak condition.

Machines may have succumbed to rust or seizure, or their parts fallen out of calibration. Process liquids may also have separated or solidified.

In terms of your building, ventilation, fire protection and site services (such as water and electricity) need to be checked. If these fall out of condition, you could be increasing the risk of fire, explosions or collapse.

For this reason, you need to carry out a detailed hands-on assessment of your equipment and building. Process materials should also be checked, secondary or back-up systems tested, and extractors, vents and exhausts investigated.

6. Build stronger health & safety processes

If controlling risk and developing stronger health & safety processes is a priority for you when bringing workers back from furlough, you may like to gather all the guidance above and create a robust system of processes that can ensure you keep the risk of accidents to an absolute minimum.

By doing so, you can go on to create an occupational health & safety management system that meets the requirements of Standards such as ISO 45001. This Standard covers every aspect of your business, from training and personnel to operation, to ensure that your business promotes health & safety awareness and controls risks and opportunities throughout.

Whether you implement a full management system or not, remember to regularly re-assess your business and its risks so that you always remain on top of any developing threats.