Has the Last 12-Months Changed Our Perception of Risk?

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Risk Assessments

There has arguably never been a time where there has been such a widespread focus on risk than over the past 12 months. We have been in a global health pandemic, of course, and a lot of the discussions are rightly about health issues. However, risk plays a big role too.

  • What risk do I have of catching Covid-19?
  • What is the scientific advice I need to know so I can reduce my level of risk?
  • Are my loved ones at increased risk of Covid-19 because of my actions?
  • What are the Government’s rules and guidelines for reducing my exposure to risk, and how can I play a role in reducing the risk of infection in others?

These questions have been topics of conversation everywhere, from the highest offices of government to globally recognised infectious disease experts to conversations over Zoom involving people all over the UK and from all walks of life whose entire knowledge of this topic has been learned over the past year.

So, risk is a hot topic for everyone right now and has been for months, but it is always an important topic in the workplace (some might say it is often not regarded as important enough, but that is a conversation for another day).

How will our experiences over the past 12 months impact workplace risk attitudes, assessments, and management? Has our perception of risk been altered, and how will that affect workplace health and safety?

The Age of Compliance?

If you could ask the person you were two years ago whether lockdowns, restricted business activity, restricted personal freedoms, and a requirement to wear face masks in public would be possible in the UK, it would be understandable if you answered no. There are not many people who could have predicted the experiences that we have all recently lived through – and continue to live through.

Despite the astonishing nature of the restrictions that have been placed on us personally, on business, on education, and on society in general, compliance with Government guidance and rules has been very high.

Of course, there have been protests against restrictions, and it’s not hard to find stories in the news of people breaching the rules by having a house party or travelling where they are not supposed to. The majority of people, however, have largely remained in compliance.

According to data from the Office of National Statistics covering a period from 10 to 14 March 2021, 92 percent of people avoid physical contact when outside their home, almost everyone is wearing face masks, and 88 percent are following Government advice to wash their hands when they come home after being out.

Have We Handed Personal Risk Management to the Government?

The ONS statistics for this recent period are similar to the stats reported throughout the pandemic. In other words, compliance with the rules and guidance has generally been high.

Does this mean we have absolved our responsibilities for risk, instead simply doing what we are told?

Many of those who are against lockdowns and other personal liberty restrictions argue that the better approach is to explain the risks, provide expert advice, and then allow people to make their own decisions on how they behave. In other words, to trust people to do the right thing given the circumstances they are facing, rather than imposing blanket bans across the entire population.

The above description is close to the model that Sweden adopted for most of the pandemic, but even they have changed tack somewhat bringing in new laws at the beginning of this year that gave the Government greater powers to impose restrictions on its citizens as part of the effort to control the spread of the virus.

Where does the approach we have taken in the UK leave us now? Does our compliance with Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns during the pandemic indicate a longer-term trend? Will we continue allowing Governments to conduct risk assessments on our behalf and then give us instructions on what we are to do? What will this mean for workplace health and safety?

Compliance Doesn’t Have to Mean Agreement

In future years when we look back over the past 12 months, it will be clear that actions and behaviours during this period have to be considered through the prism of the pandemic. In other words, 2020/21 was an extraordinary time where Governments did extraordinary things and made extraordinary requests of the societies they serve. Similarly, societies and individuals responded in extraordinary ways.

That said, when you look further into the compliance statistics, you can see that while compliance is high overall, it is not universal. For example, one of the rules at the time of writing is that you must stay at home unless leaving for work, exercise, essential shopping, or medical needs. Compliance with this rule during the reporting period (10-14 March) is 45 percent, and it has been falling for several weeks now.

This statistic could be looked at in a number of ways. Are people just fatigued with the rules, or is the slightly warmer weather bringing more people out of their homes? Is the positive news on the vaccine rollout making us more confident to push the boundaries, or has the Government’s positive messages led to some people simply jumping the gun, i.e., doing things now they expect will be permissible in two- or three-weeks’ time?

Whatever the reasons, rightly or wrongly, people are, in some ways, taking back control of their personal risk assessments.

Increased Personal Responsibility

Most experts are optimistic about the impact of the pandemic experience on long-term attitudes in relation to risks and workplace health and safety. There are many reasons for this, including greater awareness about health and safety in the wider population as well as the role personal responsibility has played in reducing risks throughout the pandemic.

Let’s look at greater awareness first. Today, PPE is a term that creeps into everyday discussions, from schoolchildren to grandmothers. Before the pandemic, though, occupational health professionals would often have to explain to employees what the acronym PPE meant before they could explain PPE requirements and processes. The fact there is now greater awareness is a good thing.

People are also now more aware of the importance of prevention, not least because prevention rather than cure was the only weapon we had against Covid-19 for months.

Another significant factor that has come out of the Covid-19 experience is the levels of personal responsibility that have been evident. People are now more aware of their responsibility to others in terms of infection control, which is one of the main reasons compliance with rules like wearing face masks and limiting social interactions has been so successful – at least from a Government pandemic response point of view.

Transferring to the workplace this increased awareness of health and safety issues and more focused personal responsibility has the potential to lead to reduced risks and better outcomes in the future.

Workplace Cooperation

Another reason for optimism among health and safety professionals is the levels of cooperation that have existed in organisations of all sizes during the pandemic. It might be forced cooperation, but what has been achieved by businesses up and down the country to make their workplaces Covid-19 safe has been impressive.

We have seen small restaurants installing screens to protect staff and customers, implementing table service only operations, and introducing procedures where staff check customer temperatures before they are seated.

We have also seen large corporations like banks that would have had minimal working from home arrangements in the past shifting almost overnight to near-complete home working to continue operations.

In both examples, and others not mentioned, achieving what businesses achieved in the short space of time they had to do it required significant levels of cooperation between senior executives, HR departments, occupational health teams, and everyone else in the organisation.

If businesses can harness this cooperation and utilise it in the future, other areas of workplace health and safety can also be improved.

What Does the Future Hold for Workplace Health and Safety?

How we responded individually, as businesses, and as a society to the risk question during the Covid-19 pandemic is a fascinating topic. There have been failures and disappointments, but there have also been positives from the experience and significant achievements as people have adapted, changed attitudes, sacrificed, put their shoulder to the wheel, and got through.

The future will be a different place, but there is an opportunity to benefit from our changed perception of risk, our changed (or newly understood) attitudes to personal responsibility, and our increased knowledge of health and safety issues. All these things can be used to make positive changes in workplace health and safety culture, processes, and systems.

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