The Governor of New York recently issued a statement making it mandatory for businesses, including local government, to reduce workforce outside the home to 50%. This rule does not apply to essential services, but the majority of municipalities will be affected. The impact of workplace safety will be dramatically affected from this reduction in workforce. Essential municipal operations include many high-hazard functions which can only be safely completed with multiple employee involvement. The majority of highway and public work operations can be considered high-hazard and it remains critical that department heads consider the safety of a reduced staff, to complete tasks which normally are considered safe. Not only might field work safety be compromised, but the safety of garage (mechanics) and office staff may as well.
A typical best practice for employee safety is to use the ‘Strength in Numbers’ rule, where employees work together with co-workers present to provide support in the event of an emergency, be it for a physical issue, dealing with troublesome customers, or during heavy-load work (i.e. mechanical). Co-workers have each other’s back during these conditions, so the reduction in work-force creates an increased risk during these work situations.
The OSHA General Duty Clause still requires each municipality to furnish its employees with a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to their employees. Take the time, prior to assigning work, to consider the dangers of the job and confirm that proper employee staffing and training is in place to make the job completed safely. Job functions like chain saw use, chipper operation, heavy equipment operation, confined space access, and work-zone operations, among others, are usually only safely completed with multiple employee investment. Think also about office staff who usually work mutually - when the staffing is reduced and employees work alone, additional safety concerns include dealing with an anxious, fearful public or performing lifting tasks where back injuries might occur –there is no assistance available for them. A good control under these circumstances is to call into staff working alone to confirm their safety and well-being. The same is true for field staff – routine contact to confirm safety is a good practice.
With these difficult circumstances surrounding our municipal operations due to the coronavirus outbreak and unusual working conditions, it is vital to consider the safety of your staff when assigning and performing job functions once thought to be safely controlled.