Supporting stakeholders to work safely through the Covid-19 pandemic

23 March 2021

As the lead on our evidence work, my main role covers the primary data gathering and fieldwork contracts we deliver at Resource futures. I’m responsible for managing the capacity and ability of our dedicated evidence team to successfully design, plan and mobilise fieldwork which provides the data for our clients. I am also the appointed Health and Safety Advisor at Resource Futures with NEBOSH accreditation in occupational safety and health. This role includes maintaining our annual accreditation to the Contractors Health and Safety (CHAS) scheme.

Health and safety is an important consideration for everything we do, it has a very significant role in many of our evidence gathering contracts. The risks involved in ‘on the ground’ delivery work – such as our waste compositional analysis projects – are far greater and more varied in comparison to office work.

I was newly NEBOSH certified at the time the UK implemented its first ever nationwide lockdown in modern history. The process of introducing measures to control and manage risks was still very fresh in my mind and it was clear that Covid-19 would impact every type of work we do at the company in one way or another. All of the information on the illness was new and largely unconfirmed and there was no existing set of best practice to draw on. The (ever-changing) government guidance was being updated weekly and new laws were soon put in place. An added complication was the varying approaches taken across the devolved nations.

With all fieldwork put on hold due to lockdown, my immediate priority was to help all Resource Futures staff safely work from home. Very early on it became clear that this would be more than a short-term move. Full workstation assessments helped us to provide everyone with the optimum set up and equipment to work effectively and comfortably from home. My regular meetings with the Executive team ramped up from once a month to once a week to cover companywide health and safety considerations.

The support extended to our community impact projects. Our Community Action Groups (CAG) Devon project assists communities and individuals to deliver exciting and innovative community-led waste reduction activities. The need to introduce social distancing and to implement increased hygiene practices to avoid transmitting and spreading Covid-19 meant CAG Devon faced numerous challenges in continuing its delivery work. Managing such a wide range of activities such as surplus food fridges, beach cleans, litter picks, repair cafes and apple pressing days meant closely supporting CAG Devon and its groups to update specific risk assessments for their activities.

I found myself rapidly applying some of the more obscure aspects of my new health and safety learnings to this unprecedented situation to ensure we were doing all the right things. Manual handling is a big part of our work and quite rightly had good coverage in the training. I’m fairly confident ‘management of infectious diseases’ will feature more prominently in the newest syllabus!

During summer 2020, other than more waste being produced at home, details on the impact of the pandemic on waste and recycling behaviour was still largely unknown. Because we had developed new systems of work to control risks, we were quickly able to help get client projects safely up and running as restrictions lifted.

In October, we supported the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) – recently renamed to ReLondon – on a waste composition analysis of London flats, to help London authorities understand the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. We began by consulting with our staff, and after refining approaches, rolled out new training to our fieldwork teams. Changes we implemented included temperature screening, reducing the number of people travelling and working in close proximity, and putting people into bubbles to minimise the chances of transmission and reduce the risks if anyone should fall ill. The work ran smoothly and provided LWARB with the first figures to give a better understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on the composition of waste, particularly on capture rates.

In a matter of months, what started as a simple (albeit important) extension to my day-to-day role as evidence team lead, turned into an essential exercise in maintaining effective communication with colleagues across the company to collaboratively develop realistic new ways of working safely.

The realist approach is key. In the late 90s and early 00s, health and safety developed a bad reputation in the wake of high-profile court cases where common sense and pragmatism fell somewhat by the wayside. It enabled the perpetuation of stereotyped officious, red tape loving, bureaucratic jobsworths, hell bent on stopping playground conkers games (or any other kind of fun).

Modern health and safety training has helped bring pragmatism back to the fore. The key focus is on ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of the whole workforce and others you work with is paramount and effectively managed. Maintaining robust, fit-for-purpose health and safety systems is vital to making the process of adapting and updating them possible, even in the midst of the most unprecedented events.

Beyond the now…

Pre-pandemic, figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) highlighted mental health-related illnesses as the largest cause of new and long-standing sickness. Reports from a range of sources over the pandemic have set out a national trend of declining individual mental health, which after a year of home working, home-schooling, back-to-back video calls and large-scale restrictions on travel and regular life, won’t come as a surprise to most of us.

In a year where work-life boundaries have shifted for many of us, more than ever, employers need to engage with and support their workforce and all aspects of their wellbeing.

Keep communicating and keep collaborating!