20 May 2020

Return to work… or not?

The Siemens UK team working remotely.

How will we get our people back to work safely? That’s the question that many employers are wrestling with now that details of the government’s guidance on the topic have been published.  Without a vaccine, we are not returning to ‘normal’ any time soon and some workplace practices and parts of our economy may never be the same. However, while change is inevitable, we have a good record on health and safety in this country, and we must take a risked-based and pragmatic approach to opening up our workplaces.  And employers cannot shoulder this burden alone, we need a joined-up approach across the economy.

Return or Remobilise?

But let’s start by getting one thing straight first.  It’s not right to make reference to this next step of the recovery plan as a ‘return to work’.  

Like many organisations, Siemens listened very carefully to the original message from government in March… “if you can work from home, do so – if you can’t work from home, go to work – as long as your employer is able to create an environment that complies with Public Health Guidelines”

We have managed to keep more than 95% of our workforce active.  The location may have changed, with many of the more than 15,500  employees now calling a space in their house ‘work’ – including me – but I’m happy to report that many have managed to  make the transition without a major impact to productivity.

Naturally, some of our manufacturing facilities needed to make adjustments to remain open, but working closely with our employees, our EHS experts, and the guidance of the HSE, modification were made to allow production to continue.

Ventilator production lines at the AMRC where Siemens is supporting the manufacture of ventilators

Managing risk is what we do.

The UK has an enviable record at managing to operate in what can often be very dangerous environments whilst keeping our employees safe.  We do this on the back of a piece of legislation that will soon be half a century old – the Health & Safety at Work Act – and its principles haven’t changed over that time.

It obliges employers to assess the actions of their employees, and assess what steps need to be taken to mitigate those risks, taking all reasonable steps.  This has to be clearly documented, the employees trained in how to do their activities safety, and employers must check that its employees are following the methods defined.  And if any of that isn’t done effectively (in the eyes of the HSE), the directors of the company are liable to significant penalties – including the potential for some time at Her Majesty’s pleasure!!

Coronavirus is clearly a threat to everyone’s safety… a very serious one.  But only one of many we have to consider.

By using the existing regulations, and adding Coronavirus to the many existing HSE guidelines that help guide organisations, we are able to provide a robust way to work safely in the existing situation

In line with the revised guidance, we are in the process of undertaking risk assessments at all of our sites and taking necessary steps to protect employees where we haven’t already done so – from social distancing to staggered working patterns – and will post more information here shortly.

Siemens is an ecosystem of separate businesses, and every one of our sites are different, so there will be nuances in how we do this.  We will also keep our approach under constant review and listen to what our employees have to say, whether directly or through employees representative bodies. 

An employee in protective equipment at one our Siemens Healthineers UK sites

Health vs Wealth

In the last weeks I’ve heard the argument tabled by some that we are putting Wealth before Health…. suggesting that business is more interested in making money than in the health of their employees.  

There will may be some employers that take shortcuts – and we should absolutely call them out if they do – but the overwhelming majority of businesses will continue to act responsibly.  However, after such a significant fiscal intervention by government, and with demand taking a huge hit, we do need to get the economy working again to begin the process of creating jobs and supporting public finances.

There is also strong evidence that lower economic activity and the resulting lower employment rates lead to higher mortality due to poor nutrition, stress, and many other side effects – particularly for those in lower socio-economic groups.

The short answer is a strong economy is good for everyone.

One size doesn’t fit all

But I’m not in favour of a free-for-all approach to the mobilisation of Industry. 

To get our workforce re-mobilised we need more than just a safe workplace. We need a safe place for children to be cared for; a safe place for our elderly relatives to be supported; a safe environment for our employees to travel to and from work (we make trains, manage many of the UK’s traffic lights, make electric car charging systems, manage ULEZ’s across the UK – so we know a bit about travel;).  All of these things need to be in place,  so another step responsible employers need to be taking is a review of individual employee’s circumstances.  And while the majority of employers will act responsibly, enforcement of health and safety guidelines becomes even more crucial, which means ensuring that HSE has the resources and wherewithal to increase monitoring and spot checks. 

I’m an engineer (and therefore by training a realist!!) so I can’t help thinking that the path out of this crisis will not be a straight one, and the strategy of baby steps, while frustrating for many, is absolutely the right path to follow.

And it’s not all bad news.  I can’t remember the number of times when someone’s told me that the activity (whatever it is!) can’t be done remotely…  The silver lining to our current cloud is the adage.. ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.  I can happily report that over the last 8 weeks my team and I have come to the conclusion that almost anything can be done remotely!!  

And with an over 50% reduction in NOx and estimated 20% reduction in CO2 emissions in major cities as a direct result of the lockdown, remote working must remain a key element of the ‘new normal’.

Our latest virtual Employee Townhall

The end of the beginning

In a call at the early part of last week I was in discussion with a group that included a senior executive in a company at the centre of the search for a vaccine.  There was an audible gasp from the group when he mentioned that a vaccine at scale could take until the end of 2021… and even that would be record-breaking speed!!

We cannot wait for a vaccine.  We have to learn to live with the virus, adjusting to a new normal while remaining vigilant.  

This will need all the steps that the Government is currently planning to be in place – a test, track & trace system, more PPE, and many others.

It will also need responsible companies to create safe environments for our employees to work in.  Something we’re already experts at.  Now is the time to fight back.. and remobilise the UK workforce.

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