07 Jan 2021

This article focuses on some of the key trends and issues that are impacting workplace safety and will continue into 2021 and beyond. In summary:

  • Continued PPE Shortages: There are, and will continue to be, shortages of key personal protective equipment. These will include N95 masks, nitrile gloves, face shields, protective gowns, hand sanitizers, cleaning wipes, etc. Some supplies may be spotty and may have regional impact only.
  • Heightened Awareness: COVID has changed the world of workplace safety with workers being at higher risk, greater job insecurity, increasing concerns about family safety and more financial pressures; resulting in an unprecedented increase in awareness and public attention on workplace health & safety.  
  • Employee “Well-Being”: Leading organizations are starting to go beyond safety and even wellness. They have focused on safety for decades; more recently on employee wellness and supporting them in developing healthier lifestyles. With the new workplace realities, total employee “well-being” is emerging as balancing work and personal life is becoming more difficult with more stress, more anxiety and, unfortunately, people being unwell more often. 
  • Major Product Innovation Concepts: Several innovations became more popular. These include “Smart” PPE with sensors that monitor, collect, and record data in real time; products that allow for personal preferences; and products that increase workplace productivity.

Continued PPE Shortages

While the overall safety business will show a 6%-7% growth to $56B globally (Zion Research) driven by the Asia/Pacific region, some shortages are expected.  With Covid cases increasing and hitting new peaks around the world, the demand for certain PPE items is still very high; supply cannot keep up. The more significant of these include:

  • Disposable Masks: In 2019 850 tons of the material was used in disposable masks in the US. This is expected to increase to as much as 10,000 tons in 2021, satisfying perhaps 80% of demand ( www.ehs.com ). “N95s are still in high demand,” 3M Chief Executive Mike Roman told The Wall Street Journal. “We have more demand than we can supply.” 3M has quadrupled its production of N95 masks to 100 million a month, Honeywell is up to 20 million a month, and others are estimated at another 20 million per month.
  • Safety Gloves: Nitrile gloves have been in short supply since mid-year, with material cost increasing rapidly. Below are the prices paid by SW through midyear:

Since then supplies have tightened further, especially with Malaysia’s Top Glove Corporation, the world’s largest maker of rubber gloves, having had a two to four week closure as more than 2,000 factory workers were infected by the coronavirus (Malaysian Times). Ansell recently circulated the following on the supply and demand for exam and disposable gloves, indicating potential supply issues and price increases over the next 12–18 months.

  • Protective Clothing: According to Carmela Coyle, CEO of the California Hospital Association, COVID-19-related supply challenges will persist through 2022. “We have been challenged with shortages of isolation gowns, face shields, etc.” Because of the high demand in health care, material shortages have impacted availability of protective clothing and gowns beyond products for hospitals and frontline health care workers. Sporadic shortages in hand sanitizers and face shields have been reported, especially in certain regions.

The shortages, however, are unlikely to be as severe or widespread as in the spring. Hospitals, in particular are expecting rolling shortages of supplies such as specialized beds, disposable isolation gowns, masks and even thermometers.

What you can do:

Supply chain managers have reacted to these situations by (i) stockpiling extra inventory, (ii) developing multiple suppliers and, in some cases, (iii) turning to non-traditional manufacturers such as textile manufacturers where possible.

Heightened Awareness of Health & Safety

Clearly one result of COVID has been an unprecedented increase in awareness and public attention on workplace health & safety. This is creating a once in a generation opportunity to elevate safety in organizations to the benefit of today’s workforce and even future generations. 

Don Martin of DEKRA, which provides Testing, Inspection and Certification Services, summarized this well. There will be are three major changes with greater safety awareness (i) more attention to critical data and its  implications on safety and health, (ii) personal hygiene and area disinfection practices will increase and (iii) better preparedness for health emergencies. 

Robust safety programs will become more common and the four key elements in a successful safety program have always been: 

  1. Top management commitment, especially the CEO, and on- going attention to safety.
  2. The emergence of a safety champion who drives safety within an organization, most successful when this is the CEO; other leaders within the organization must be empowered to help build a strong safety culture.
  3. Employee buy-in and trust in the process; with initiatives to develop employee involvement in safety on a daily basis.
  4. Solid, regular, and open communication and feedback between the workers and top management so that issues are quickly identified and solutions found.

What you can do:

The difference in this COVID environment is the intense focus on workplace safety and the recognition of its importance—this should make it easier to implement successful safety programs. In a recent survey reported by Safety and Health Magazine, more than half of respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that employees generally comply with safety rules and policies, but view workplace safety as “someone else’s job.” There is still a gap to be filled—it is everyone’s job.

Employee “Well-Being”

Organizations at the forefront of employee and workforce relations are starting to look beyond Workplace Safety and even Employee Wellness to what is being called “Employee Well-Being.”

Workplace Safety got a solid boost in the early 1970’s with the establishment of OSHA and the emergence of safety regulations. Starting in the 1990’s more and more attention went to Employee Wellness as healthier employees would reduce sick leave and reduce health care costs. Programs here included more exercise facilities, quit-smoking programs, healthier eating, increased testing, etc. 

The grind of 2020 has impacted employee engagement and Gallup recorded an historic drop by the summer. This is the impact of the pandemic, political and ideological polarization, racial and economic inequality, etc. The key findings include:

  1. Employees fear for their physical well-being and PWC research showed that they fear getting sick from being at work.
  2. They are confronting isolation and loneliness, with a May 2020 Gallup showing that 47% felt worried and 24% felt lonely.
  3. Elevated stress levels have taken a toll on mental health with caring for families, children being at home, concerns about jobs, and fear of contracting COVID. According to recent research by Oracle, 78% of employees surveyed say that their mental health has been affected. 
  4. Further, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that about half of workplace accidents are partly attributable to drug abuse, and 11 percent of fatalities involve alcohol. Given their impact on safety, productivity, absenteeism, and morale—it makes sense that more companies are employing programs to provide treatment and support for affected workers. 
  5. This trend encompasses a shifting focus from detection to prevention. Safety programs have largely focused on detecting unsafe conditions, where companies spent more time mitigating risks after an accident. Now there is greater emphasis on prevention-based programs that emphasize education, training, and identifying issues before someone gets hurt.

What you can do:

Organizations need to be sensitive to these issues which are very likely to impact 2021. As the vaccine becomes more widely available and the country starts to get herd immunity, these may subside–but this is likely to take time. Well-being includes elements of mental health, a smooth return to the workplace, implementation of diversity and equity, and an overall positive employee experience within a defined purpose. This must go beyond just HR and should become a part of the role of line management.

Safety Product Innovation Trends

A key driver of the Safety and PPE business has always been product innovation. Some of the more significant trends in this area include:

  1. “Smart” PPE: This is emerging with the digital revolution and PPE with sensors are being introduced. They monitor, collect, and record biometric, location, and movement data in real time. These collect the same data as wearable devices, including the user’s heart rate, calories burned, steps walked, and blood pressure. This equipment can also track advanced metrics like the user’s blood alcohol content, blood oxygen levels, sweat levels, and vital signs. Next-generation smart PPE is expected to monitor workers’ fatigue and alertness. While there are some privacy concerns about how this data is collected and used by employers, monitoring factors that could contribute to accidents may significantly reduce the number of workplace accidents.
  1. PPE that helps improve worker productivity: This is a continuing trend to make PPE more comfortable, keep workers cooler or warmer depending on the environment, allow better and easier use of tools and machinery, etc.
  2. PPE that reflects workers’ personal preferences: This includes looser-fitting respirators that allow workers to wear facial hair, lighter fabrics and special textiles that enable clothing to meet protective standards while still providing style and comfort, more pastel colors especially for women.

In Conclusion

  • The coronavirus will continue to impact safety and PPE well into 2021 with the high COVID-related products being in much higher demand leading to shortage, though not as severe as last spring. 
  • The heightened awareness of health & safety and the recognition of its importance should make it easier to implement successful safety programs. 
  • Employee well-being, that is going beyond workplace safety and employee wellness is emerging and should expand rapidly. 
  • Finally the industry continues to innovate with “smart” PPE, helping to improve productivity and providing PPE that better meets personal preferences of the workforce.