Staffing Back Up Safely in a Post-COVID Environment

As business slowly return to normal after pandemic lockdowns, they are faced with the prospect of ramping staffing back up nearly as quickly as they ramped it down. In a lot of cases this not only means recruiting, hiring and training new employees, but just as importantly, keeping them safe amid new production pressures, safety requirements and employee expectations.

For various reasons, staffing back up quickly has presented a lot of challenges. Workers may be looking for employers offering remote or hybrid work schedules, they may have children who have not yet returned to school full time, they may be hesitant to return to work due to health concerns, or they may not need to return to work yet after receiving stimulus payments and a federal unemployment bonus. Some top talent may have secured employment elsewhere or moved during the pandemic. This sets up the perfect storm: a tight labor pool combined with a need to hire a lot of employees quickly after a period of decreased revenue. In other words, it may be tempting to cut corners in your hiring process or onboarding process in order to get warm bodies on your payroll, and out in the field so the firm can start generating revenue again. However, cutting corners is risky. To the extent possible, it is best to avoid this temptation and adhere to risk control best practices.

Workers compensation insurance premiums are determined by several factors, but one of the most significant is injury frequency. Statistically, new employees get injured more often. This is because longer term, more experienced employees are less likely to make mistakes. In addition to this, many employers have had lower than normal payroll over the past year, which may cause the experience modification rating to go up significantly if it is coupled with higher-than-normal claims. This is because the experience modification calculation compares a firm’s expected losses to actual losses, and expected losses are determined by payroll. The more payroll a company has, the more claims they can have and still maintain a favorable rating. The calculation also penalizes claim frequency, but discounts claims severity. So, now may be a particularly bad time to have frequent claims, even if they are relatively small.

It is critical to screen your job applicants as well as possible to ensure they are qualified, physically capable of performing the essential functions of the position with or without an accommodation, and that they have a good work ethic. Now is not the best time to ditch your reference checks, background checks, drug screens and post-offer pre-employment physicals.

It is equally critical to take the time to thoroughly train new hires how to work safely before putting them out in the field. Inadequate training may lead to mistakes, which may result in claims. A claim will almost always cost more than the time it took to properly train workers. Also important is your company’s commitment to ongoing awareness training. If you have a lot of new employees, consider a weekly safety meeting that brings focus to areas where a newer worker might let it slip. Best practices for tasks that are easy to rush through or overlook, such as housekeeping and material handling, are good choices. Another useful part of training is to discuss those times of the day or week when people may be distracted or less vigilant, such as right before lunch, near the end of the workday, or at the end of the work week.

If incidents do start to occur, be sure to investigate them to determine the root cause, and to put a correction in place. Not only does OSHA require this, but it is a good opportunity to identify emerging patterns that could led to increased frequency of claims. Identifying these patterns early will allow you to nip them in the bud before they become a bigger problem that may make insurance unaffordable or hard to secure.

Another reason to be focused on safety best practices during this period of adjustment is that COVID-19 remains an issue. Cases are declining, but the pandemic is not yet over. Most states and counties still have a significant number of employee and employer obligations in place. Some of these obligations carry penalties if not carried out properly, and all of them require a well thought-out program coupled with thorough training. Employers will want to be well versed in state and local requirements, especially as they pertain to health and safety measures such as written programs, masking, capacity, sanitization and contact tracing. Most counties, and OSHA, require reporting of positive cases. Many states also require notification to a company’s workers compensation carrier if an employee tests positive.

Employees need to be aware of their obligations so that employers can meet theirs, and this requires a thorough safety orientation for new hires. As things return to a more normal state, it will be natural for employees to resume comfortable old habits such as handshakes, hugs, high fives, sharing food, etc. It will be important for employers to consider what behavioral restrictions need to be implemented, and then to communicate those safety measures to workers to ensure compliance. As restrictions are eased, more training will be needed to communicate changes in protocols. If some of the workforce will be working remotely or in a hybrid schedule, a different risk assessment and safety onboarding will be needed to ensure the home work environment is safe and takes into account things like proper ergonomics and separation of work and personal activities.

Reprinted with permission from Risk Management Magazine. Copyright Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc. All rights reserved.
Written by Meghan Dickerson, 2021