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Six important insights into workplace safety for the return to work

Workplace safety matters, but organizations can’t take action on resolving issues unless they know about them. As workplaces make the return to indoors in the face of rising COVID case numbers, listening to employee concerns and fears, and keeping a flexible and resilient attitude, will be what gets workplaces through 2021.

Workplace safety has always mattered — and with a surge of the COVID Delta variant, workplace safety matters more now than ever. Companies who just a few weeks ago were speeding towards reopening are weighing the new risks: Google is requiring masks in their offices, Morgan Stanley is requiring vaccinations, and Apple has pushed back their opening.

Yet while workplaces say they’re taking initiative, are workers actually feeling safe enough to return, and confident that their health will be kept the priority? Our new report on “The State of Workplace Safety” shows that workers may not be feeling as eager and assured to get back to work as organizations hope they are.

6 Safety Takeaways
Workers should feel comfortable and protected by their workplace, and not only experience a safe environment, but feel that they can speak up when they have concerns. We often see articles approaching workplace safety and office reopening initiatives from the top down — but how do employees feel about their health and safety at work?

52% have experienced unsafe working conditions
According to our report, half of workers have experienced some kind of unsafe working condition, and the issues they saw most frequently were exposed wiring, slippery walkways, unmarked exits, and unsanitary conditions. Many also noted a lack of PPE in their workplace, customers not wearing masks, or social distancing not being enforced as part of the unsafe working conditions they witnessed.

41% have left a company due to unsafe conditions
While 87% of workers believe their workplace cares about their safety, many of them have left workplaces due to seeing unsafe working conditions go unresolved. This means that addressing workplace issues not only keeps employees safe, it keeps them around. This is also a flag to workplaces evaluating their reopening plans that if employees don’t feel that safety issues are being addressed, they’ll go elsewhere.

Over half have reported unsafe working conditions
Of those who witnessed unsafe working conditions, a little over half have reported them. Those who didn’t report the issues didn’t think the issue was big enough to report, or they weren’t sure whether it was their place to report it. This tracks with other surveys, including one from Fast Company that found that 40% of employees don’t feel confident sharing their ideas or concerns at work, and 49% don’t feel leadership wants to hear them. Unfortunately, even with the safety issues that were reported, only 55% of them were fully resolved.

58% feel “very comfortable” returning to work
An employee’s concern for their health is a real factor that could determine their willingness to return. We found that 58% of employees said that they were “very comfortable” returning to their workplace with COVID safety precautions put in place. However, those who didn’t feel comfortable cite a lack of COVID safety measures being put in place, or that they feel their workplace is reopening too quickly and putting profit ahead of people.

46% believe they’re being forced to return
Nearly half felt that they were being forced to return to the office — possibly due to a lack of remote or hybrid options. What’s worse is that for employees who have been given the option to stay remote or come back to the office, 45% fear that if they stay remote they’ll be unfairly treated, lose job duties, or not be considered part of the team.

We’re seeing this play out, as Apple employees sent a letter pushing back against a mandated return-to-the-office policy, stating that “Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple.” This could also be a hinge point for employee retention, as Bloomberg found that 39% of employees would consider quitting if their workplace didn’t offer flexible work alternatives (Millennials and Gen Z come in higher at 49% each).

1 in 5 employees don’t feel comfortable voicing COVID-related concerns
Unfortunately, many employees in this position don’t feel like they can speak up because they don’t believe their workplace would do anything about it or take them seriously, or they fear retaliation for speaking up about their concerns.

They’re not out of line for thinking that. For the 1,744 COVID-related retaliation issues filed with OSHA from March to August in 2020, only 2% have been resolved. This means that not only are workers feeling pressured to return in person, but that they feel they can’t say anything about it, either — even when their lives are on the line.

74% are more willing to raise issues anonymously
Workplaces need to realize that many employees are being put in a tough spot because of these decisions. How can employees feel heard if they don’t feel comfortable enough speaking up? Our report found that nearly three-quarters of employees would feel more inclined to voice their concerns if they were provided an anonymous way to report.

It’s situations like these that prompted me to start AllVoices, an anonymous reporting tool and feedback platform. After reading Susan Fowler’s blog post about raising issues at Uber and subsequent retaliation for reporting them, I realized that there was a failure in the market for meeting employees where they are. If organizations really want to care for their employees, and create a work environment all employees feel comfortable and even excited to return to, then they need to put in place new ways to listen to their employees — and value and take action on their concerns.

Returning Together
Workplace safety matters, but organizations can’t take action on resolving issues unless they know about them. As workplaces make the return to indoors in the face of rising COVID case numbers, listening to employee concerns and fears, and keeping a flexible and resilient attitude, will be what gets workplaces through 2021.

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