Right now, the world is dealing with an unprecedented situation – the COVID-19 pandemic. Forestry has been declared an essential service across Canada, which means workers need to follow appropriate health and safety guidelines and employers need to stay up-to-date as the situation rapidly evolves. But there is a lot of information out there to sort through and it can be difficult to know what best practices to follow.
That’s why for the fourth episode of The CFI Podcast, we spoke with David Murray, corporate safety, HR and environment manager for Gorman Group and co-chairperson of the Manufacturing Advisory Group, about how to work safely during COVID-19. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.
CFI: With the forest industry being declared essential in Canada, companies need to ensure that their employees are working safely during this time. As a result of the combustible dust issue in B.C., the Canadian forest industry has been focused on improving worker safety for years now. How has this emphasis on safety helped the industry respond to COVID-19?
David Murray: This is a great question. The combustible dust mill explosions of 2012 forced wood product manufacturing employers, regulators and safety associations to react very quickly to that emergent issue. At that time, safety practice sharing between various forestry companies was actually more casual, and there wasn’t a structure in place for employers to cooperate on safety issues with health and safety associations or regulators.
A silver lining to the tragedies is that a very solid organized relationship was bridged between various companies and between companies and the HSA and regulators. Our industry is now better equipped to predict and respond to forestry-related safety crises, so when a global crisis like this pandemic occurs, we’re in a much better position than ever before to tackle it.
What are some of the concerns you’ve heard from people in the industry?
There’s been a lot of information on COVID-19 to sort through, as well a lot of misinformation. It’s led to some employees becoming quite anxious, and others are looking at all of this as overdone. Likewise, with employers, some have taken it very seriously early on and others have been late adopters to it as it has unraveled. This is a crisis that requires a careful communication strategy, including what are the sources of information that can actually be relied upon. We’re focusing on information from the governmental agencies.
Have you run into any challenges in ensuring that employers and employees are following best practices?
Tangible difficulties that Gorman Group, our peer companies and really all businesses have faced have been securing sanitation supplies. Very quickly Purell hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes disappeared. We’ve had to find some alternative sources to make sure we have the right supplies to clean things.
In terms of securing PPE, the N95 masks were in short supply. In mill settings, we have some supply of those, and we’ve gifted a lot of them to local medical centers who need them most. We have kept some for our critical activities such as our first aid attendance, but you can’t get them. So, we’ve had to come up with some creative, effective ways to provide our employees who must work in close proximity for some time with PPE and other control measures. We follow a very specialized risk assessment process to make sure that that happens.
Now, in terms of working safely, everyone knows about the importance of social distancing and practicing good hygiene. But what are some other best practices for workers to follow? What best practices have you implemented at Gorman Group?
Our safety group wanted to ensure that changes made in our physical distancing and hygiene were tangible so that our employees can have confidence that there is less chance of getting or spreading COVID-19 at a Gorman Group worksite than when you’re away. So, we put up disinfecting checklists and schedules signed off by those conducting them. Somebody coming into a lunch room may not have seen that a janitorial service just an hour before had gone through and sanitized the whole thing, and the concern might be, ‘I’m coming into a petri dish of COVID-19.’ So, having a checklist on the side by the door showing this is what was done here, signed off by the person who did it, is something that will give some peace of mind to our employees.
Operators are required to sanitize their working area before they get to run any equipment. Each task that requires close proximity has been analyzed and alternative control measures have been implemented.
We’ve become very good at health and safety at work sites, and often we say that we want our employees to take safety home with them. Regarding the coronavirus issue, our control measures are designed so that our employees don’t get or take COVID-19 home with them.
Something that is overlooked far too often is the importance of employees’ mental health during this time. What should companies be doing to ensure their employees’ mental wellbeing?
I don’t think that anyone has been exempt from some form of mental health or elevated stress from COVID-19, myself included. I’ve found myself and others to be short-tempered or touchy while working through some more challenging concerns over this past month. I’ve learned of some employees reacting with survival mode-induced actions, high anxiety about coming into work despite the control measures we have in place, or even anger that COVID-19 has been blown out of proportion.
Recognizing elevated stress and mental health issues are on the rise, our company has promoted our Employee Family Assistance Programs, EFAP, and any governmental and community services that are available. We’ve allowed employees to take a leave of absence who have raised concerns about being at work because of this, despite not meeting any of the specific criteria for being off. One neat example I can share with you is that one of our plants has created an employee appreciation campaign. Each employee has received a pizza dinner voucher for their family and a small gift from us for displaying the physical distancing and hygiene control measures in action.
In order to ensure employees are staying safe, both physically and mentally, communication from employers is key. What are some best practices for employers to follow?
We very quickly set up a communication plan to inform our employees about the coronavirus, focused on their safety and financial well-being related to our business. This has been housed on our company’s website. It features a confidential feedback loop for our employees so we can understand what they’re really thinking and how they’re really feeling. Our HR group works tirelessly on updating flowcharts and processes to ensure that people who shouldn’t be at work aren’t, and are supported with the financial options available, and people who should be at work actually are.
Another area around communication that we’re leaning into is the value in engaging our safety committees at the sites. They’re the worker representatives and communication from them is going to be very critical. This is a great opportunity to make full use of our joint occupational health and safety committee members to be involved with every aspect of this process including the communication lines between employees and our management groups.
In order to continue operating throughout this pandemic, companies need to have contingency plans in place in case employees become sick and are absent for up to two weeks. What should companies be considering when creating and updating their contingency plans? Can you talk a bit about what Gorman Group’s contingency plan looks like?
Good question. There’s nothing like a pandemic to dust off our crisis contingency plans. In our company – and I would suggest that most companies have done this – we have expert HR professionals working on managing the lists of people who are off every single day, not just from coronavirus-related items. There’s always going to be some people off every week for various reasons. So, they’ve been working daily on making sure these lists are up to date, sharing it with our operation leadership teams, and figuring out what shift changes or potentially even curtailments in shifts are required because some critical people have been off.
Looking ahead, the economy will start to reopen and restrictions will be rolled back gradually. What should employees and employers keep in mind as this happens?
We have to stay the course and hold the line on everything that we’re doing. From everything we’ve learned from health directives, this won’t be over until a vaccine has been developed and made available, so I think we can’t be complacent on things and we need to be forward-looking. Things are changing so dynamically that some of this information we’re talking about today might be a bit stalemated in a few weeks. From a company and industry perspective, we’ve paused some activities such as training. We’ve either extended the dates that a training expires or we’ve said, ‘Okay, we’ll wait.’
However, we will not be able to wait forever. This is going to be going on for months and months; it’s been said a year to 18 months before a vaccine is available. We need to come up with ways to be able to carry out the activities that are important for our business to run and run safely with COVID-19 control measures in place.
What do you think is the most important thing for employers to take away from this pandemic?
We will get through this. We have a very resilient industry. We are a very value-added set for society with renewable resources and the products that we produce and the family economics with jobs that we provide. We’ve demonstrated our resilience through a lot of market and other constraints, and this pandemic will be another thing that we’ll get through.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to our full conversation with David, visit www.woodbusiness.ca/podcasts or find the episode under Annex Business Media on iTunes and SoundCloud.
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