House Subcommittee Hearing: Serving Public During a Pandemic

Testimony of NSC President & CEO Lorraine Martin: U.S. House Committee on Oversight & Reform

Subcommittee Hearing: Frontline Feds - Serving the Public During a Pandemic

June 25, 2020

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Chairwoman Maloney, Chairman Connolly, Ranking Member Jordan, Ranking Member Hice and members of this committee, thank you for inviting the National Safety Council (NSC) to participate in today’s important hearing on the safety and health of the federal workforce. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, NSC has focused on supporting worker safety and health and giving employers, including our federal government partners, resources to do so. NSC guidance and recommendations have evolved as public knowledge has changed about this novel virus, but our focus on safety and health has not waivered.

NSC is America’s leading nonprofit safety advocate – and has been for over 100 years. As a mission-based organization, we work to eliminate the leading causes of preventable death and injury, focusing our efforts on the workplace, roadway and impairment. We create a culture of safety to not only keep people safer at work, but also beyond the workplace so they can live their fullest lives. Our more than 15,000 member companies and federal agencies represent employees at nearly 50,000 U.S. worksites.

As I address you today, we are well into National Safety Month, which occurs every June. NSC has led this observance for over 20 years, always with the goal of providing employers with the materials and resources they need to keep their workers safe. National Safety Month this year is focused on timely topics the world is facing right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including mental health, ergonomics and the crucial steps of building a safety culture. Though National Safety Month is coming to an end, many new barriers to worker safety remain.

The manner in which we return Americans to their traditional work environments and routines will define our national response to the pandemic that has upended our lives and forever changed how our nation approaches workplace safety and occupational health. NSC believes that the key to achieving a sustainable and lasting economic recovery is keeping workers available, healthy and safe. In particular, with new research showing that almost one in four adult workers is vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19, employers should consider which employees can continue to safely and effectively telework from their homes for the duration of the pandemic – and encourage those employees to do so.

About 2 million civilians work for the federal government as civil servants with about 79% of these people located outside of the Washington, D.C. region. About 1 million people are active duty military. The U.S. Postal Service employs about 600,000 people, and is the single largest segment of the civilian federal workforce. These men and women are located throughout the nation and around the world representing the United States’ interests.

The federal government undoubtedly faces challenges to ensure the health and safety of its employees, and it is not unique. Employers across the country are facing myriad challenges and asking questions about operating safely during the pandemic. Some workers never stopped their shifts and have stayed on the job throughout the pandemic; some are returning to workplaces now and some are working from home or other locations they never expected to be. Given this, employers need help navigating information sources and they need to be able to trust the information they receive. To help tackle some of these issues, NSC created and leads the Safe Actions for Employee Returns (SAFER) initiative with large and small companies, nonprofits, legal experts, public health professionals, medical professionals and government agency representatives.

NSC thought leadership on workplace safety and health provided the foundation for the SAFER initiative, and SAFER task force members have shared best practices from their experiences here and abroad to develop playbooks. These playbooks provide a one-stop shop of information, resources and tips for employers on topics including:

  • Physical safety
  • Medical issues
  • Mental health and stress
  • Employment, legal and human resources (HR)
  • Communications with employees
  • External factors

Playbooks also cover different work settings such as:

  • Office operations
  • Closed industrial
  • Open industrial
  • Public interactions (e.g. retail)

SAFER resources also include “Quick Hits, which provide tactical information, including checklists, procedures and protocols for our new workplace operations. I have included a sample document with my statement. Topics covered here include:

  • Confirmed workplace case notification
  • Entrance screening
  • Managing employee stress and anxiety
  • Workplace hygiene
  • Office reopening protocol and more

This information is only the beginning. NSC views this as the foundation upon which to build knowledge and a deeper understanding of the coronavirus response to keep employees safe and healthy. This work is particularly useful for many mid-sized and small businesses that do not have the resources to develop plans and procedures to safely return their employees to work.

Understanding that some employers do not have the time to sift through all these resources, NSC has created a web-based tool to identify the exact content that employers need. By answering a few questions, like the number of employees, industry type and location(s), this tool will choose the resources and solutions best suited for that business to prioritize the safety and health of its workforce. This is another key component to support safe workplaces for small and mid-sized businesses that are already stretched by a variety of priorities.

Along with the web-based tool, NSC compiled a resource library with playbooks and other guidance donated by the SAFER Task Force members to help businesses safely operate during and after the pandemic. These will also be key tools for the federal government. Like all of our SAFER resources, the web-based tool and resource library will be continually updated through evaluation and continual learning.

The resources produced through the NSC SAFER initiative have provided clear, expert guidance where it is needed. We urge the federal government to use these resources to govern the return-to-work decisions it is making for its workforce and as a basis for external communications to workplaces. NSC also shared these resources with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Eugene Scalia, urging the Department to adopt SAFER resources as part of its Opening America’s Workplaces Again national online dialogue.

As federal agencies make plans to return their employees to traditional work environments, consideration should be given to these 10 universal actions NSC recommends all employers consider before reopening:

  • Phasing Plan – Create a phased transition to return to work aligned with risk and exposure levels. This plan should be informed by and tied to clear milestones at the local level, such as levels of positive cases.
  • Sanitize – Before employees return, clean and disinfect the workplace and make any physical alterations needed to implement CDC and federal guidelines around physical/social distancing
  • Screenings – Develop a health status screening process for all employees
  • Hygiene – Create a plan to handle sick employees, and encourage safe behaviors for good hygiene and infection control
  • Tracing – Follow proper contact tracing steps if workers get sick to curb the spread of COVID-19, and consider technology solutions available to aide with contact tracing, including limitations on the use of technology with the federal government such as not being able to carry phones into secure rooms
  • Mental Health – Commit to supporting the mental and emotional health of your workers by sharing support resources and adjusting relevant policies
  • Training – Train leaders and supervisors not only on the fundamentals of safety such as risk assessment and hazard recognition, but also on the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health and wellbeing, as employees will feel the effects of the pandemic long after it is over
  • Engagement Plan – Notify employees in advance of the return to work, and consider categorizing workers into different groups based on job roles, bringing groups back one at a time
  • Communication – Develop a communications plan to be open and transparent with workers on your return to work process
  • Assessment – Outline the main factors your organization is using as guidance to provide a simplistic structure to the extremely complex return-to-work decision

As employers safely bring employees back to the workplace, they must not lose focus on avoiding a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Employers, including the federal government, must work with public health authorities to prioritize two key issues that will help prevent another shutdown: testing and contact tracing. Employee mental health and wellbeing must also be prioritized as traumatic events, such as the pandemic, along with the economic uncertainty and vulnerability caused by COVID-19, can impact an employee’s mental health and hinder their ability to contribute fully in the workplace.

Testing and Contact Tracing

Businesses can be important partners in conducting more widespread COVID-19 testing. NSC supports screening all individuals entering workplaces and testing whenever appropriate, including those at risk for infection who are asymptomatic. While many employers have adopted temperature screening as a method to evaluate health status, temperature screening should not take the place of a robust, federally led testing regime. The federal government, as an employer, should lead the way to help other businesses understand how to effectively participate in testing. In some communities, if employers participate, the majority of the community is participating.

In April, NSC and over 70 other organizations wrote a letter to Vice President Pence, as the Chair of the White House coronavirus task force, asking that he prioritize providing access to testing equipment for businesses after the health care sector. NSC appreciates Congress recognizing the need to support testing for businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act. This law provides funding to the states for testing. NSC also calls out that the workforce and employers are necessary partners in a more complete testing protocol and an important part of keeping workers safe and healthy. NSC asks Congress to ensure its directions are followed in this regard, and we are ready to work with the federal government and states as these testing protocols for businesses are developed and implemented. The federal government must also work with states, local governments, public health officials and employers to provide adequate and validated testing resources.

If employers are to fully participate in screening and testing employees, there are considerations to keep in mind. Currently, strong laws are in place to protect the privacy of health care information and prevent discrimination. Agencies such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and others have relaxed some of the laws through temporary emergency orders to help fight the spread of coronavirus. NSC believes these agencies should consider the following measures for the duration of the pandemic:

  • Continue to allow health care screening of employees, contractors and visitors to facilities. This includes temperature and symptom screenings. If screenings are conducted by a third party, results of screenings that could impact the health of other workers should be confidentially shared with the employer.
  • Continue to allow COVID-19 testing of workers, contractors and visitors to workplaces
  • Provide clear validation of testing equipment through the Food and Drug Administration process
  • Allow sharing of positive worker (employee or contractor) COVID-19 test results by the testing entity with employers to make appropriate notifications to other workers who have been in proximity to the positive worker

Containing any communicable disease effectively requires adequate and diligent contact tracing. NSC believes participation in contact tracing by workplaces is a key component to stop the spread of coronavirus. Workplaces may inadvertently provide locations for virus transmission, and contact tracing among co-workers is key to preventing further spread. NSC urges all employers, in conjunction with public health officials, to participate in contact tracing in the workplace to help stop the spread of coronavirus. Employers should:

  • Encourage employees to participate in a technology or other system to determine employee contacts during their infection period
  • Seek employee buy-in for contact tracing whether done through mobile apps or other strategies
  • Allow employees who were exposed to the sick individual (identified through contact tracing) to remove themselves from the workplace and self-quarantine according to CDC recommendations
  • Share relevant information on employee contacts with public health officials when an employee tests positive for COVID-19

Mental Health

People across the country are facing an incredible amount of stress right now. As many as 150,000 people could die from alcohol, drug overdoses and suicide caused by social isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond the negative impact of a traditional economic downturn, COVID-19 presents additional challenges – fear of the virus itself, collective grief and the mental health impacts of prolonged physical distancing and associated social isolation. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half (45%) of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic intensifies the threat of mental health distress in several ways, including stress caused by financial, employment, child and family-care instabilities, as well as fear of being exposed to or infected by COVID-19. Trauma, economic distress and unemployment increase risk for mental health issues and substance use disorders. Job loss is associated with increased depression, anxiety, distress and low self-esteem, and may lead to higher rates of substance misuse, substance use disorder and suicide. A recent survey on the impacts of COVID-19 on individuals with substance use disorders showed that more than one in three respondents reported changes in treatment or recovery support services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and one in five reported an increase in substance use.

Mental health issues have increased as measures taken to slow the spread of the virus, such as physical distancing, business and school closures and shelter-in-place orders, lead to greater isolation and potential financial distress. COVID-19 has caused the sharpest economic pullback in modern history and a record-breaking spike in unemployment. Extended social isolation can lead to the development of substance use disorders. Additionally, as a result of the pandemic, those with previous substance use disorders are even more vulnerable due to decreased accessibility to treatment, recovery supports and harm reduction services. For example, at least 30 states are reporting spikes in fatal opioid overdoses in connection with COVID-19.

There is also a strong, bi-directional relationship between mental health and fatigue, both of which impact safety in the workplace. Long-term or chronic stress, which many people are experiencing as a result of the pandemic, increases likelihood of fatigue. Fatigue is also a symptom of several mental illnesses, including depression – one of the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses in the United States - with over 17 million adults having a major depressive episode in 2017. Similarly, people with chronic fatigue can exhibit similar symptoms as those with a mental illness, including feelings of sadness, hopelessness or anxiety.

These conditions will not disappear as the country recovers and people regain a sense of normalcy. The mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to manifest in the coming weeks, months and years. Employers play a vital role to help their employees manage this stress and support mental wellbeing.

To help employers address these interconnected issues, employers need to prioritize employee stress, emotional and mental health both now and as they return employees to traditional work environments. Additionally, employers must prepare for an increase in substance misuse – one that could be a serious threat to worker safety, and cost tens of thousands of dollars per person in productivity losses, absenteeism, presenteeism and workers’ compensation claims if employers do not plan ahead.

Each person will experience the stress and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic differently. Some may not show signs of or experience mental health distress for weeks or months. In the Stress, Emotional and Mental Health Considerations Playbook, NSC recommends employers build both short- and long-term responses to these mental health considerations and ensure mental health continues to be prioritized. That means leveraging employee assistance programs (EAPs), providing employees with contact information for mental health services and openly acknowledging and discussing the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health. The playbook also offers guidance to secure buy-in and engagement from leadership, management, human resources, communications and employees, which is critical for success.

Employers with short- and long-term response plans will be the best equipped to help their workers. Some key factors that workplaces should incorporate into their strategy include:

  • Building a culture of psychological safety in workplaces, including training leadership and supervisors
  • Establishing resources and benefits to provide treatment and access to help needed
  • Thinking about and shifting language used in human resources and other documents to describe substance use disorders and mental illnesses to ensure it is non-stigmatizing
  • Leading education and awareness opportunities for all staff so that they can protect themselves from mental health issues and stress related to COVID-19, and practice safe coping mechanisms
  • Communicating frequently with employees to ensure they know that they are supported in seeking any help they need

NSC also has created a how-to guide for addressing employee stress and anxiety regarding returning to work, as well as a suite of documents devoted to addressing the opioid crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employee Safety Perception Surveys

Employee Safety Perception Surveys (ESPSs) are a key tool to understanding employees’ view of on-the-job safety. ESPSs allow us to gain the benefit of firsthand knowledge of the people on the ground in the safety and health systems developed for this response. ESPSs gauge health and safety management systems and organizational safety culture through a series of questions to employees. The goal is to gather data to know what is working and what needs improvement, and this data creates a benchmark from which to improve safety performance. Furthermore, there is an association between positive employee perceptions and reducing workplace injuries and illnesses.

Outcomes of ESPSs have included:

  • Improvements in safety culture and consequent reductions in workplace injuries and illnesses
  • Increased job satisfaction and engagement, and decreased turnover rate
  • Better and more robust data collection from which to monitor safety climate and support organizational leadership to develop strategic data-driven action plans
  • Improvements in potential gap areas before manifesting in workplace injuries
  • Connection with employees
  • Increased employee involvement and accountability in safety, including decreases in the perception gap between management and non-management personnel, increases in employee perception of leadership and organizational commitment to safety year over year and improvements in safety performance

During COVID-19, NSC has leveraged its existing capacity and expertise in developing employee perception surveys to create a survey specific to issues faced at this time, including changes in work environment, support for mental wellbeing and new safety protocols to limit transmission. Responses provide clear direction to employers on where they may need to adjust responses to prioritize safety and health. NSC encourages federal agencies to consider conducting employee safety perception surveys to measure the effectiveness of their response to this pandemic.

NIOSH and OSHA

The National Safety Council has been a longtime supporter of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Institute for Occupational Safety and Healthy (NIOSH) and the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This year, NSC led a request for increased funding for both agencies because of the critical missions they execute. We have requested $677.4 million for OSHA and $354.8 million for NIOSH, including a restoration of funding for the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing and Education and Research Centers programs.

NIOSH has been a great resource for workers and employers during this time. NIOSH experts have shared information in a timely manner to promote safe workplaces. NSC has incorporated much of this information and used it as a basis for recommendations as part of the SAFER initiative. Additionally, NSC supports providing an additional $25 million to NIOSH to conduct research to identify best practices for small, medium and large businesses during the pandemic. This investment is needed now more than ever and can yield great information and data for the federal workforce.

OSHA is empowered with the authority to issue emergency temporary standards when quick action is needed to protect workers’ safety and health. The coronavirus pandemic is such a time. NSC believes OSHA should exercise its emergency authority to issue a temporary emergency standard to protect workers from occupational exposure to COVID-19. This action should remain in place for the duration of the current COVID-19 pandemic and its possible reemergence to limit the spread of the virus in workplaces, protect worker safety and health and provide clear rules for workplaces. Without this action, states will act, creating a patchwork of requirements instead of what employers and workers need – one level of safety that is clear and understandable to everyone. NSC welcomes an opportunity to work with this committee on these requests.

Federal Worker Safety

NSC has been a long-time partner of federal workers. In addition to SAFER, NSC leads Work to Zero, which focuses on advanced technology to reduce occupational death and injury, and Road to Zero, which works toward zero roadway deaths. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of workplace fatalities. Federal partners serve alongside NSC in all of these task forces, sharing a unique point of view and gaining valuable insight from other participants, including the private sector, that they might not be able to gain otherwise. These collaborations allow agency personnel to share safety and health information and learn from others outside the government silos for the greater benefit of the federal workforce.

Through its Campbell Institute, NSC is an aggregator of best practices from leading organizations and actively contributes thought leadership to benefit worker safety and health on topics ranging from fatality prevention to leading indicators. More times than not, safety protocols are not industry specific but rather risk specific. For example, fall protection is needed across multiple sectors, and those organizations with best practices in fall protection are often working with NSC. We want to share this information widely for the greatest benefit, and I welcome more federal agencies to join NSC to learn, share and implement best practices to keep people safe from the workplace to anyplace.

At the end of 2018, the Department of Labor reported that the federal government total recordable incidents was 3.0 cases per 100 employees, which was 7% higher than private industry. Also, the federal government lost workday case rate was 1.68 cases per 100 employees, which was 86% higher than private industry. While today we are focused on safety while working during the coronavirus pandemic, I urge this committee to examine the larger issues around occupational safety and health of this workforce. NSC stands ready to assist you in this task.

Training for occupational safety and health professionals is key to supporting their success. NSC sees the value in investment in the upskilling and continuing education of safety practitioners and is actively involved in efforts around competency modeling and development of curriculum to support this. Currently, the Office of Personnel Management does not require any certifications for people serving in the Safety and Occupational Health Management Series. NSC urges Congress to consider requiring more specialized training for this workforce to ensure the safety of their colleagues, and in general, to update standards that were last updated in 1981. The OSH field has advanced greatly over those 40 years, and federal workers may not have the benefit of this learning.

Federal advisory committees play an important role to inform the work of the federal government. NSC has been a proud participant in the National Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH). The Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health (FACOSH) is focused on federal OSH topics. FACOSH has not met for the past four years, and as a result, the information and learnings that could be gained are lost. FACOSH brings government representatives out of their silos to share information and fosters ingenuity and innovation that might otherwise not occur. NSC encourages Congress to do what you can to support reconstituting FACOSH.

Work to Zero

Even in the time of the coronavirus, we know persistent workplace safety problems remain, and we cannot stop working on solutions to prevent falls from heights, struck-by incidents and other workplace killers. To that end, the National Safety Council established the Work to Zero initiative, which aims to make workplace deaths a thing of the past. Using decades of insight, data and an unparalleled network of safety leaders, Work to Zero identifies the most promising technological innovations for eliminating workplace serious injuries and fatalities in our lifetime. Work to Zero is also taking on COVID-19 to inform employers on technology for COVID-19 risk mitigation.

Thank you for holding this hearing. Businesses should follow federal guidance, but that is the floor – not the ceiling. Employers must go beyond this guidance, because now is not the time for minimums. Additionally, it is clear that to ensure a sustainable and lasting economic recovery, workers must be safe and healthy. NSC is working toward this end, and we welcome an opportunity to partner with this Committee, Congress, and the federal government to make this a reality.