As the country slowly begins to open back up and return to work, manufacturers are pulling their employees off of furlough and returning them to their former jobs.  This is great news for our economy, but it may pose a different kind of challenge for many of our country’s manufacturers.

Some manufacturing employees have been off the job for months.  Many have been largely sedentary for that time period, contrary to their normal day before the pandemic.  Are they ready to face the rigorous requirements of their former jobs?  Will they have the stamina necessary to work safely?  Are workers mentally prepared to return to the workforce?

All of these questions pose a new challenge that safety managers are facing now.  Not only are they facing the challenge of keeping employees safe from Coronavirus as they return to work, but they must also look at safety measures to make sure that employees are as protected as possible from return-to-work injuries.

COVID-19 Protection

The Coronavirus pandemic has necessitated a lot of protocol changes for manufacturers, so that employees can safely return to work. OSHA has mandated some very specific guidelines that manufacturers must follow, but there may also be some facility specific protocols that safety managers must work on too.

Unfortunately for safety managers, it’s not only about instituting new protocols.  Returning employees must be trained in the new safety guidelines and take active ownership of the personal and collective protective strategies at each facility.  This can be a huge task, especially if you have multiple manufacturing locations throughout the country.  Fortunately, we’ve found some free worksheets to help you manage your organization’s compliance with local, state, and federal COVID guidelines.

This is going to be demanding, but it’s not the only challenge facing safety managers as manufacturing employees return to work.

Physical Impact of Furloughs

Safety managers are currently presiding over the biggest return to work program that we’ve ever seen in our country.  They must be prepared to help employees safely return to work, and that includes their physiological capabilities to do their job.

After weeks or months of living that furloughed life, many manufacturing employees just may not have the strength or stamina to return safely to their formerly demanding jobs.  With a potential weight gain, a decline in aerobic capacity, and muscle loss, former employees may no longer be fit for duty.  Fatigue may be a serious problem, and it will take some time for them to get back in shape.

In many cases, safety managers are going to have to take steps to ease employees back into work so they don’t hurt themselves.  That may mean shorter shifts, reduced workload, warm-up periods before shift, or even temporarily taking on a different role.

Discover How to Reduce Your Supplier Risk Now

Uncover all the factors that put your supply (and suppliers) at risk. Discover how you can minimize supplier impact, and what strategies you can use if things go wrong.

Download White Paper

Psychological Impact of Furloughs

We cannot underestimate the psychological impact of not only being furloughed, but being on complete lockdown for months.  While some states gave citizens more latitude than others, there’s no doubt that the COVID-19 lockdowns have been difficult for all of us.  Here at Conner, we were labeled as an essential business, allowing us to keep our doors open and keep most of our workforce employed.  Having said that, the lockdowns were still a little like living in the Twilight Zone.

Furloughed employees who have been on a strict lockdown for weeks or even months, may not be psychologically ready to return to work.  They have not only been dealing with the stress and fear of the pandemic itself, but they’ve also endured the increased stress of the lockdowns, lack of resources, and social isolation.

Unfortunately, the psychological impact of COVID continues to affect employees when they return to work in a wide variety of ways.  Many of the employees returning to work continue to be anxious, not only about the possibility of being exposed to COVID at work, but also about the future of the virus.  Their anxiety levels have been pushed upward during the lockdown, making them anxious about a lot of things that wouldn’t have bothered them before, and it will take some time for that anxiety to return to normal.

Safety managers, as well as other leaders in your organization, need to take these psychological factors into consideration as workers return to the job.  Employees may be less predictable, have trouble focusing, and may be frustrated with the demands of their job or a pace they struggle to keep up with.  Fatigue alone can create a drop in attention and alertness and compromise safety.  All of these factors can create a recipe for mistakes, errors, and safety exposure.

In order to protect employees from the psychological factors that may affect their safety at work, safety managers, supervisors, and leadership must start by acknowledging the anxiety that many are feeling.  Your overall program should also offer resources for employees who are feeling the impact of all this stress.

How to Prevent Return to Work Injuries

In the face of COVID-19, safety managers must be proactive in both recognizing these safety factors and finding ways to protect employees.  Training workers to recognize these challenges, see the early signs of a issue, and help prevent problems can go a long way toward preventing return to work injuries after a long COVID furlough.

Early intervention programs can help employees to be more aware of their own limitations, keep them focused on best practices, and keep safety top of mind.  Even simple things, like asking workers to stretch before beginning their shift, can help reduce return to work injuries.  Manufacturers who are calling back furloughed employees must work with employees to build up the stamina necessary to work safely again.  Organizations can’t expect workers to hit the ground running when they’ve been sitting on a couch for three months.

Safety managers and HR must also make resources available to support employees emotionally.  Many healthcare plans already have resources available to organizations, so it’s simply a matter of making employees aware of their options.  Additionally, acknowledging and supporting workers, as an organization, can go a lot way toward rebuilding a strong workforce.

Wrapping It Up

Safety managers will be facing a lot of challenges as the country slowly begins to open back up.  While manufacturers are anxious to bring employees back to work after being furloughed, there are many safety considerations that must be addressed.  After months of sitting on the couch, many furloughed employees may not be up to the task of returning to their former jobs.

Over the next several months, safety managers will not only be facing the challenge of keeping workers protected from Coronavirus, but they’ll be facing other safety challenges caused by shutdowns and long furloughs.  Preventing return to work injuries will be challenging, but early intervention programs can help.

Discover How to Reduce Your Supplier Risk Now

Uncover all the factors that put your supply (and suppliers) at risk. Discover how you can minimize supplier impact, and what strategies you can use if things go wrong.

Download White Paper