Was fortunately associated with workplaces from those good old days when factories used to be the core area of operations for business and those engaged were far from being called the ‘brick and mortar’ community. The Indian Factories Act 1948 replicating the British Factories Act 1833 required implementation of fundamental provisions for washrooms, washing facilities, spittoons, cleanliness, drinking water, lavatories and urinals, sufficient lighting, control of dust and fumes, effluent treatment and avoidance of overcrowding. Except in reasonably well organised companies, factories were nowhere near implementing these compulsory provisions. The Factories Inspector and his inspection were an eyewash! He used to be seen off at the factory gates with a sizable and a fat envelope and the adherence to the provisions became a pathetic mockery of law. Even in factories owned by well established companies, the apathy towards hygiene was markedly observed. Visiting the Thakersay Group of Mills in Mumbai (owned by the Late Vijay Merchant [a cricketer and commentator of the yester-years], known to be a renowned philanthropist), the lavatories for operatives were found to be filthy. The late Russi Mody in one of his rounds of the Tata Steel Plant had to change the labels of the toilets in order to ensure that the quality of hygiene was as important for operatives as it was for the managers and officers. If this was the plight of washing places in well known organisations, today one can imagine (we saw it) what it was in smaller and less organised companies.
Unfortunately, our misguided education system had a pivotal role to play in creating awareness towards hygiene and its effects on health and those coming from the lesser equipped strata in the society had no perception of what it could be! This resulted in havoc and the exploitation continued! I had found toilets kept locked in the course of my consultancy assignments during working hours in some factories. Instead of creating awareness on hygiene and cleanliness, the management thought it was wiser to have restricted use of washing places. This resulted not only in an unhygienic environment at the workplace but added to the grime even in the periphery of the precincts. It was only the Government’s drive towards Swachh Bharat and the arrival of the services industry such as Hospitality, Information Technology and those enabled by the latter, started bringing in the awareness. Generations X and Y have partially in reducing frequencies, respectively, found these on ground. It is only the millennial who probably are more fortunate.
I believe there is still plenty to be done and more so in the post-Covid 19 period. There were certain do’s and don’ts, even before we found ourselves in the grip of the pandemic. Recalling them one by one
- Keep the workplace clean (prevent spillages and dust)
- Ensure no cluttering in or around
- Keep your tools and implements in a proper place (after categorizing them)
- Keep the passages clear
- Stack all material in their proper places (the Japanese tools and systems were a boon)
- Keep the toilets clean after use, as you would like to find them when you enter them
- Wash your hands after work and in breaks (wear gloves and masks at hazardous places)
- Ensure proper visibility and ventilation at place of work
and a few more perhaps. They were always found to be contributing to healthy working conditions and therefore higher productivity. You did not need to be a health professional to comprehend or implement this or discover if they were wanting. They were the benchmarks. Post Covid 19 certain parameters have been added, without ignoring the above. In fact observance of the above have become more stringent and a must and the following have been added. This is exclusive of the option to work from home. While the WHO prescribes a detailed code for workplace hygiene WHO on workplace hygiene, I am attempting to be more generic.
- Hygiene protocols – Intensified hygiene and disinfecting protocols are essentially needed (for both employers and employees) with employees being told to clean and disinfect their hands on entering the workplace and to wear masks/other PPE clothing (if contagion is expected). If the Health Safety Environment Department or the Government recommends widespread use of PPE, such as masks/gloves, it would require more clarity as to what exactly is needed and who is responsible for providing such equipment, and who for their after-use disposal. This may create not only compliance issues for health and safety programme requirements, but also affect productivity due to stress and reactive or impromptu responses.
- Work Practices – To minimise high density of people, managements will need to look at strategies to slice its workforce, depending on the nature of the industry/business, by allowing only a smaller portion of the staff to attend work at any one time. Staggering work-hours or breaks, working on alternate days, reducing numbers in the workplace by increasing remote working capability, ensuring limited physical contact/social distancing among staff in the office, installing no touch bins, could be only a few measures.
- Medical Testing – It would be mandatory to undergo regular testing for COVID-19 or to present a Covid 19 -ve certification. Monitor all who present themselves, though unwell and issue them instructions not to attend work and quarantine them if displaying COVID-19 symptoms etc. Return to work shall be based on rigorous testing either for the COVID-19 virus or antibodies. This will need sufficient testing capacity of the organisation. Another issue is that of the time-frame in the process of receiving the test results. This has a serious impact on an employee’s attendance and subsequent financial setbacks and productivity losses to the organisation.
- Tracing/Declaring of Symptoms – In terms of tracing contacts, managements are advised to register all entrants to offices and factories…nothing new but has to be extremely stringent. Potential work resumption requirements for managements to verify an employee’s COVID-19 status and/or their vulnerability due to underlying health conditions becomes a task in itself. There has to be a consensus on the most effective way to trace and isolate people exposed to COVID-19 while protecting their privacy. Return to work will in any case have to be in a phased manner. This may done according to age, health vulnerability or other relevant risk factors. Organisations which only permit a return to work based on medical fitness and overlook other risk factors may become vulnerable to claims for discrimination on disability/health or age grounds. (Can be debated)
- Technology – In view of the risk of relapses, organisations will be required to have increased technological capabilities such as installation of thermometers to detect high temperatures (and potentially may need to develop a process to screen individuals) and perhaps also sensors may be required in infection “hot spot” touch areas, such as door handles, printer monitors, etc., restrictions on meetings and lift usage and use of shared property/stationery and other office equipment will need to be considered.
There could be other structured thoughts on the subject. But I have attempted to gather a few and consolidate them in this article. Readers are most welcome to add value. Shall give all of us an opportunity to learn in the times of the ‘new normal’ and be more empathic with the organisational changes.