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The Office Working Scene Is Back. How Can Employers Protect Their Workers?

The surge to return to the office has not come in the big bang predicted. That being said, in October the numbers of workers in office reached the highest levels seen since the pandemic, according to the Wall Street Journal. Business owners and managers will have noticed one thing about the return to work that perhaps they didn’t plan for prior to the lockdown – big changes in health and safety. Protecting the modern workforce in a manner that is compliant with modern workplace legislation is perhaps more difficult than it has been before, but if applied correctly can help to contribute to business growth. Understanding the new legal landscape is the first step in providing true protection for employees, and arguably the most important, too.

Legal changes

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Legal changes that impact the workplace health and safety system are coming thick and fast as the Biden administration seeks to change what burden is placed on employers. As legal experts FVF Law (https://www.fvflawfirm.com/) highlights, private law firms have stepped in to help ensure compliance to new legal terms by businesses that are unable to be covered by HSE. This gap being bridged by the private law world is something the administration is looking to catch up on; for instance, the US  government has petitioned various courts to lift a ban on vaccine mandates imposed by businesses. The law is quickly changing, and businesses need to retain counsel on both private and public (i.e. regulatory compliance) fronts.

Indeed, even if federal and state law isn’t catching up and creating mandates for workforces, there are increasing numbers of firms who will nevertheless make this imposition. As the SHRM outlines, this is absolutely within the right of an employer and something worth considering in the workplace. There are, of course, benefits and downsides to mandating vaccine uptake in the workforce, but it’s something that businesses need to consider when charting a course through the new normal of industry.

Doing it right

Of course, businesses should also look to do the right thing by their employees. Even while the law catches up, the standard that employees should expect continues to evolve. Harvard Public Health outlines just how this has happened; wellbeing has become increasingly interfaced with health and safety as employers recognize the needs of employees are not as simple as protecting them against physical accidents in the workplace. A holistic framework for their safety, which includes mental wellbeing and regular check ins as to their overall happiness in the role, will help to prevent health and safety risks.

There is also an argument to be made that mental health conditions, or illness, that arise as a result of workplace interactions are in themselves ‘accidents’. Long-term stress can easily be created from over demanding jobs, a lack of engagement between leaders and staff (something often hit on in the remote workplace), or simply from failing to manage the work-life balance of an employee. Just as a workplace that doesn’t properly manage physical health risks will see higher rates of accidents, so will a workplace that doesn’t care for the mental health priorities of its staff.

Back to normal

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There is also a responsibility of business owners to check all of the support services they have are still in place. Many businesses will choose to use third parties to provide well being services, alongside HR functions and other areas best handled by outside expertise. However, as CNBC notes,60% of businesses that shuttered over 2020/21 have now closed permanently – and, in many cases, without a proper cleaning of house before shutting down for the final time.

Ensure that your business network remains intact and, if not, take the opportunity to reassess what makes health and safety work for your business and build new connections to bridge that gap. Process mapping is an important framework to have behind the scenes in any business planning for the new normal. Prize continuity in your planning efforts and work to keep a coherent plan of who your stakeholders are and how issues in the supply chain can impact your ability to provide for employees.

Staying ahead

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There is clearly plenty to be done when it comes to workplace health and safety. A recent New York Times report highlighted how dysfunctional the regulatory system is. OSHA would need 162 years to visit every workplace in the USA; and, with fines set at a maximum of $13,353, most businesses could afford to eat a loss if they really were negligent. This shows a clear focus is required by employers to stay ahead of the curve.

It has already been shown how COVID has changed the health and safety landscape in wide-ranging ways. It has also provided an opportunity. The demand for business leaders to be agile and think on their feet is something that can be brought into future health and safety planning. While nobody can predict the future and what risks may arise, they can look at the landscape within their business and adapt to it. Be aware, look at risks ahead, and look at what your employees would need to stay safe in the office environment.

Health and safety has always been a fluid business, but never more than it is now. Businesses are changing to ensure they meet the needs of their employees, both in terms of the regulatory picture and in terms of doing right by their talent. It’s impossible to know the next threat, but the current shift in regulatory demands has shown more clearly than ever that change can, and will, happen. Being ready and able to address that is a virtue for businesses of any size, and will help to cement a good reputation among the workforce. Workers coming back into the in-office environment are often anxious about what awaits – making it a smooth transition can only benefit the business.


Ricardo is a freelance writer specialized in politics. He is with foreignpolicyi.org from the beginning and helps it grow. Email: richardorland4[at]gmai.com