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Reducing safety risks for a returning and deconditioned workforce - Helmsman

Reducing safety risks for a returning and deconditioned workforce

With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and expectation of getting “closer to normal” by July 4, 2021, many businesses are considering moving back to regular operations before the end of the year. Despite this progress, it’s clear that the pandemic has made a lasting impact on our workforce—and the safety implications of returning to work need to be carefully considered.

 

The pandemic-era trend toward layoffs and early retirement means today’s workforce has less training and experience than in March 2020. On top of that, a year of being at home has physically changed our bodies, resulting in what experts call a “deconditioned workforce.” Unfortunately, this less trained and deconditioned workforce poses new safety risks for business, particularly in more risk-prone industries such as manufacturing, trucking, and construction. Today, it’s important for businesses to consider the safety risks associated with this trend and what they can do to help reduce workplace injuries as employees return to work. 

Early retirement makes an impact

Because of the pandemic, many older Americans working in heavily impacted industries decided to retire sooner than planned. According to a study by the Schwartz Center, more than 1 million workers left the workforce between August 2020 and January 2021. In the last year, the unemployment rate for older workers has been significantly higher than mid-career workers—a rare occurrence in the job market.

 

For businesses that laid off a large percentage of their workforce during the pandemic, this means that new hires will have significantly less training and experience than their predecessors. Compounding this problem is the fact that many workers are joining new industries due to COVID-19; according to a study by McKinsey, more than 100 million workers globally, or 1 in 16 people, will need to change occupations because of the pandemic.

 

These factors equate to increased risk for companies—especially those in certain sectors. According to David Perez, chief underwriting officer at Helmsman Management Services: “In any job with a high safety risk, like construction, trucking, or manufacturing, untrained workers present tremendous exposure for accidents to occur.” In high-risk industries where training and experience prevent workplace injury, there is now a much more significant burden on employers to help keep untrained employees safe. 

A deconditioned workforce

Even for experienced employees returning to work, there is a greater risk of workplace injury when they come back to their jobs, post-pandemic. This is the result of worker deconditioning, or the degeneration of physical fitness and flexibility from lack of use. Bottom line? After more than a year of being at home, many of us simply aren’t as prepared to do physical labor as we were before the pandemic.

 

How bad is the problem? According to HumanTech, every day that we don’t use our muscles, we lose 1-3% of our strength. Months of sedentary behavior changes our bodies—and we can’t rebuild that strength overnight. Other factors, like reduced cardiovascular fitness and reduced flexibility, also contribute to workplace injury, particularly in the construction and manufacturing industries. It will take weeks or even months for workers to regain the strength they had before the pandemic. In the meantime, businesses need to be aware of the increased risk and adjust their insurance policies to reflect that change.

Reduce risk by investing in training

Our workforce and working environment may be different from what it once was—but a commitment to health, safety, and training should remain a key area of focus as companies begin returning to “business as usual.” Companies looking to reduce the risks associated with an untrained and deconditioned workforce should invest in training processes, particularly in the first few months back at work. In addition to these new processes, businesses should also review what their key drivers of loss are when it comes to workplace injuries.

 

“The number one best practice is making sure you have procedures and protocols in place to get your workers trained up appropriately,” says David Perez. “The more hazardous the occupation, the more time you should allow for the hiring and training process to occur.” By investing in your workforce’s knowledge and well-being, your company is better prepared to mitigate costly workers compensation claims, accidents and other liabilities—proving that training is well worth the investment.

This website is general in nature, and is provided as a courtesy to you. Information is accurate to the best of Helmsman’s knowledge, but companies and individuals should not rely on it to prevent and mitigate all risks or as an explanation of coverage or benefits under an insurance policy. Consult your professional adviser regarding your particular facts and circumstance. By citing external authorities or linking to other websites, Helmsman is not endorsing them.

Due diligence: 3 Ways businesses can mitigate risk in a post-COVID world

For more than a year, businesses in virtually every sector have scrambled to keep up with the uncertain and rapidly evolving economic landscape under the pandemic. Today, due to vaccine rollouts and the declining number of COVID-19 cases being reported, some restrictions are being lifted. As a result, many organizations are hoping for a return to some degree of normalcy. However, this gradual transition doesn’t mean that businesses can stop worrying about risk mitigation. In fact, the post-COVID world poses a whole new set of risks that business owners will need to address in the coming months ahead.

Here, we take a deep dive into three strategies companies can adopt to mitigate risk in 2021 and beyond, from reducing technology exposures to re-evaluating risk portfolios for the post-COVID economy.

3 strategies to reduce post-pandemic risks

  1. Maintain COVID-19 safety protocols

The U.S. recently reached a milestone for COVID-19 vaccinations with 50% of the population having received at least one shot. And while it’s tempting to fully relax safety standards, we aren’t out of the woods yet. In fact, scientists still aren’t clear how the novel coronavirus will continue to impact daily life in the months and years to come.

Because of this, it’s important for businesses (large or small), to continue to maintain cleaning protocols and other risk-mitigation strategies implemented during the pandemic. For example, some companies are choosing to retain a digital-first model to help keep employees and customers safe. Other policies, like encouraging employees to stay home when they feel sick and continuing to provide personal protective equipment can also help reduce risk. Plus, these protocols can have other benefits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that during the pandemic, the U.S. experienced historically low levels of flu transmission — due in large part to masks, social distancing, and use of disinfectants. Maintaining a clean workspace means fewer sick days and a healthier overall workforce.  

2. Assess potential technology exposures

During the transition to a mostly digital-first workforce in March of 2020, many companies made a quick pivot to new technologies that would support business continuity. Because of the frenzied nature of this transition, however, some companies found themselves at increased risk for technology exposures. McKinsey reports that many chief security officers have found themselves straining their virtual private networks and patching legacy systems to protect against increasing cybersecurity attacks. Since the pandemic began, targeted email attacks (often called spear-phishing) are at seven times their usual levels—and that’s just one example of ballooning security threats under COVID-19.

Companies that implemented band-aid solutions back in March 2020 are urged to revisit their solutions and consider secure, long-term technologies to support their hybrid workforce. Regardless of your approach, every business can benefit from assessing technology risks, looking for security gaps, and ensuring that due diligence has been taken to protect the company from costly security breaches.

3. Re-evaluate risk-management strategies

No matter your industry, chances are that COVID-19 has changed your risk portfolio. Perhaps your company incurred unexpected debt during the pandemic. Maybe the market for your product shifted––for better or worse—or supply-chain changes impacted your bottom line. According to Deloitte, even traditionally less-volatile investments like real estate, have experienced significant swings because of COVID-19, with hospitality- and entertainment-related real estate on the decline and an increased demand for telecommunications and data centers.

 

To ensure that your current coverage reflects your new risk portfolio, make a time to connect with your insurance carrier and broker to assess new risks and how to manage them. For example, you may have additional coverage needs as your business retrains and upskills employees, addresses changes in your product line, protects itself against shifts in the supply chain, and more. 

Preparing for the Next Normal

Today, as the COVID-19 vaccine helps to significantly reduce the impact of the virus, the pandemic has fundamentally changed how America does business. To prepare for the “next normal,” it’s important for companies to actively take steps to help reduce risk, protect employees, and ensure business continuity—because if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.

This website is general in nature, and is provided as a courtesy to you. Information is accurate to the best of Helmsman’s knowledge, but companies and individuals should not rely on it to prevent and mitigate all risks or as an explanation of coverage or benefits under an insurance policy. Consult your professional adviser regarding your particular facts and circumstance. By citing external authorities or linking to other websites, Helmsman is not endorsing them.

3 Ways courtrooms are addressing pandemic-induced case backlogs

Since December of 2019, COVID-19 has impacted facets of every business. Not one sector hasn’t felt some strain as employees were relocated to work from their homes and social distancing became the public norm.

So, too, have the court systems been impacted by this growing need to contain and slow down the spread of the virus. As a result, this has led to a buildup of cases that by this point in their lifecycles, should have been closed.

“Since the shutdowns began, the courts have closed or significantly slowed down their operations,” explained Meg Sutton, SVP, Casualty, at Helmsman Management Services. “As more people become vaccinated and incidents of diagnoses continue to reduce, we are seeing some courts start to reopen or have soft openings for proceedings.”

It is this backlog of cases that has courtrooms looking for alternatives to tackle the issue while continuing to keep public safety at the forefront. The following are three ways courts have begun to address this issue and the advantages and concerns of each.

1) More cases are being heard over Zoom court.

One of the biggest contenders to combat case backlog has been to conduct court proceedings over Zoom.

“Technology has really been leveraged during this time to keep the wheels of justice rolling,” explained Kristin McMahon, SVP, North America Specialty Claims and Canada, at Helmsman.  “Zoom has been an ideal platform for the more administrative pieces of a case, including motion practice.”

The advantages of Zoom don’t stop with motion practices; some courts are even turning to full-on Zoom trials to keep the caseload from piling too high.

Of course, the biggest advantage courtrooms are experiencing with Zoom is the elimination of in-person contact that helps to prevent the virus from spreading. It’s also a time-, cost-, and resource-saver — schedules are easier to accommodate, travel is eliminated, and courts are working at reduced staff in-house, with most employees joining in remotely. Moreover, it keeps cases moving, bringing all parties from lawyers and witnesses to the juries and judges together at the click of a button.

However, despite Zoom’s advantages, challenges remain – especially when it comes to trials.

“Juror distraction can be a big problem,” said Sutton. Even under normal circumstances, where everyone is physically present, keeping jurors engaged can be difficult. With Zoom trials, there are fewer safeguards to ensure that jurors are not on their phones or multitasking in other ways. Jurors may also be tempted to research the case or the parties on the internet during the trial.

“Additionally, the jury pool changes when it’s remote,” Sutton continued. “It’s dependent on technology, which is not necessarily something every household has access to. You could really diminish your juror pool by eliminating people without access to advanced technology and people who aren’t as tech savvy.”

In the long term, both McMahon and Sutton agreed that Zoom as a vehicle for fully remote trials is likely to lessen in popularity as places open back up.  “Though,” added McMahon, “from a pretrial motions and depositions standpoint, using virtual appearances instead of in-person has shown effective for a number of reasons.”

2) Mediation and arbitration have found a virtual home, proving more litigation could be moving to this new platform.

When there is a court- ordered mediation, judges require representation from both parties, including legal counsel. Through this process, the goal is to get cases resolved and off the docket in a timely manner. But because of COVID-19, these proceedings, too, have hit a standstill.

Before the pandemic, arbitrations and mediations had already begun moving toward taking advantage of virtual tools. But since COVID-19, courts have experienced fully the benefits of mediation and arbitration done virtually. Much like Zoom court, it keeps backlogged cases moving.

“Additionally, courts have found virtual mediation and arbitration to be less expensive in that travel costs are all but cut. These settings are also bringing about a bigger inclination to settle. As McMahon and Sutton explained, although mediation has always been a preferable avenue to settle a dispute, the prospect of litigation during a pandemic has acted as a motivator to settle during mediation”.  

However, much like Zoom court, virtual mediation is only as good as the technology available.  

“Also, a really effective lawyer might not be as effective virtually as they are in person,” Sutton added. “There could be elements lost through technology, especially eye contact or being able to read someone’s body language. That can be a disadvantage for both parties.”

“Some would argue that virtual mediations are better or have found a higher rate of resolution, because all parties are able to take a break and return to the matter. Whereas in-person mediation doesn’t have that reflection time,” McMahon said. “Often, in-person means traveling to and from the court in the same day, sometimes across states.”

However, to truly know the long-term benefits, she said more research will have to be done.

3) Courts are resuming activities in a limited capacity.

Even with a greater reliance on virtual court options, some states are opting to reopen courtrooms in accordance with statewide guidance. This has a few advantages: namely, the courts are already designed to hold trials, whereas a Zoom trial requires more setup.

But resuming in-person court requires a lot more thought and logistics planning to be done correctly during the pandemic.

“There are a lot of planning and lengths to which the court has to go in order to create a safe space for resuming in-person litigation,” McMahon said.

There’s a need to keep jurors, plaintiffs, defendants, and all other personnel socially distant from their neighbor to adhere to CDC recommendations. Additionally, jurors and witnesses are wearing masks, which could limit a court member’s ability to read someone’s body language or see facial expressions that could help or hinder a case.

“Restrictions are also inconsistent across states,” said Sutton. “So, for example, a company in one state might be adhering to stricter rules and not allowing employees to travel. But then they might need to litigate a claim in another state that’s requiring an in-person trial. How do they balance that?”

A final concern is comfort levels of all the parties involved, particularly jurors. If a juror is uncomfortable being in a courtroom for fear of contracting the virus, they may spend less time in deliberation and come to a quicker verdict in order to limit their own exposure. This could have adverse effects on cases that could benefit from discussion.

Applying a proactive approach to keep you in the know

At Helmsman, we think it’s important to stay informed as to the changes in the court landscape while courthouses decide what method is best for them, and as the cases and the people behind them await their day in court.

We are continuing to adapt to and monitor these emerging trends, ensuring that you feel prepared and ready for whatever trial or mediation this ever-changing court landscape brings. 

“We’re constantly looking at the way the courtrooms are changing and reporting on how our claims professionals have fared during virtual court,” Sutton said. “We’re looking at what’s working, what’s effective. And we’re using that to inform our decisions as we move forward so our customers have the right strategies in place.”

At Helmsman, we don’t settle for yesterday’s solutions. From speeding up the claims process to keeping you in the know about emerging risks in your community, field, or industry, we want you to have the information you need.  

To learn more about virtual litigation and how we’re preparing for its impact on you, our valued customer, please contact your Helmsman representative.

This website is general in nature, and is provided as a courtesy to you. Information is accurate to the best of Helmsman’s knowledge, but companies and individuals should not rely on it to prevent and mitigate all risks or as an explanation of coverage or benefits under an insurance policy. Consult your professional adviser regarding your particular facts and circumstance. By citing external authorities or linking to other websites, Helmsman is not endorsing them.

Balance remote-work risks: 6 central areas for businesses to review

For most businesses, remote work makes many parts of the job easier – and less expensive. However, there can be challenges with employees working remotely. You can avoid some of the more common pitfalls of remote work by having the right policies and procedures in place. A good place to start is by consulting with your human resources team (or an employment lawyer, if necessary) to ensure compliance when managing your virtual workplace risks.

The following are six key areas of your business that you should monitor for risks as they relate to employees working remotely.

Tracking employee time

Ensure compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) and establish a process within your teams for work during non-standard business hours and accommodations for time zones and schedule adjustments.

  • Timekeeping tools: Avoid discrepancies in remote-employee claims around required meal periods, rest breaks, and overtime by implementing appropriate timekeeping methods. Monitor the reports and remind non-exempt employees to stay within the agreed parameters.
  • Overtime: Stay ahead of potential overtime deficits by establishing a clear set of guidelines for employees to record and report work beyond their scheduled hours.

Expense reimbursement

Although employees may request reimbursement for expenses incurred while working remotely (use of their personal cell phone, electricity, Internet, and other home office costs), employers are not generally required to reimburse for these expenses. However, there are some exceptions:

  • Under the FLSA, if these expenses affect the salary basis test or minimum wage earnings, employers may be responsible for reimbursement.
  • Relevant laws in some states may require a different strategic plan of action, particularly: California, Illinois, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Discrimination & harassment

Harassment, bullying, and unfair treatment can still occur with remote work, and you shouldn’t forget your obligation to review employee concerns.

  • Liability laws: In general, companies will be held vicariously liable for unlawful discrimination or harassment by a supervisor, but if the conduct is by a co-worker, the employer is liable only to the extent it was negligent in discovering the behavior and taking action to end it.
  • Training opportunities: All employees can benefit from training on avoiding discriminatory behavior. However, training for those who are supervising others is particularly important. Currently, states such as California, New York, and Connecticut, have mandated sexual harassment training.

Disability accommodations

A remote work policy cannot treat employees differently on the basis of disability. This means that as an employer, you should not ask employees who disclose they have a medical condition to work in the office or to work remotely based on an assumption the person cannot work in the other locale.  Other factors to consider include:

  • As you re-open to allow in-person work, it is important to balance the needs of employees who wish to remain in a remote setting due to pre-existing conditions (e.g., asthma). We recommend reviewing the most up-to-date guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on appropriate accommodations: https://www.eeoc.gov/.
  • For any remote employees seeking assistance under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a process should be established within your business to assess and assist a strategic work plan for them.

Worker safety & compensation

Although your employees may be virtual, courts will likely consider remote workers at home to be on the employer’s work premises when determining whether an injury is compensable under workers compensation laws – even though the employer has no direct control over that environment. So, what does this mean for your business?

  • OSHA obligations: Under OSHA, employers are required to provide a safe workplace, even if that isn’t in the normal place of business operations. Review whether employees, especially if they must travel, have safety options such as PPE, paper towels, and hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Remote injuries: A recent court case found that injuries resulting from a trip over the family dog while in the middle of a work task could be compensable. It’s hard to control for that sort of situation, but given the obvious risk of ergonomic injury for employees who work on keyboards, consider conducting virtual reviews of an ideal home office set-up for your team.

Workforce management

As we begin the slow recovery process from COVID-19, the impact of virtual workspaces will extend to new hire procedures, protected leave plans, and future furloughs. It’s important to stay informed on the latest Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and federal legislation in these key areas:

  • Hiring: At will offers are key to maintaining flexibility during this time. As an employer, you should be careful not to enter into an employment contract when offering a position. As a general rule of thumb, new employees are obligated to produce proof of citizenship or work authorization in person, unless your workplace is fully remote.
  • Leave of Absence: Remote employees still have the ability to take protected leave under FMLA, the ADA, or state law depending on your business. Employees will also have the right to take paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) until the end of 2020 absent an extension, state law in certain cases, or leave pursuant to a short-term or long-term disability plan.
  • Reduction in Force (RIF): If you are executing a RIF to help minimize costs, remember to consider requirements under the federal WARN Act (which generally requires 60 days’ notice where there are mass layoffs, among other events) or other WARN requirements under certain state laws. Similarly, when making alternate cost-saving measures (such as reduction of hours and furloughs, consider UC and FLSA responsibilities as well as potential WARN issues.

COVID-19 continues to challenge businesses in a number of key areas. As an employer, your best line of defense to mitigate remote-work risks is to stay informed. At Helmsman Management Services, you can count on us to deliver the right resources at the right time to drive the very best outcome for your business.

 

The foregoing is not professional advice nor legal advice, is provided for information only, and is not a substitute for consulting with a professional.

This website is general in nature, and is provided as a courtesy to you. Information is accurate to the best of Helmsman’s knowledge, but companies and individuals should not rely on it to prevent and mitigate all risks or as an explanation of coverage or benefits under an insurance policy. Consult your professional adviser regarding your particular facts and circumstance. By citing external authorities or linking to other websites, Helmsman is not endorsing them.

Understanding employee risks in a virtual workplace

As we slowly recover from COVID-19, many employers are continuing to allow their employees to work remotely. In fact, 66% of employers surveyed said they are planning to allow employees to work from home full-time through 2021, and 73% intend to offer flexible work arrangements once the pandemic is over.[1] However, this shift to a virtual workplace has presented new challenges for some businesses. If your company is continuing to move away from traditional work settings, now is the best time to reassess and mitigate work-related risks to employees working from home.

The following are key ways your business can better prepare for remote risks associated with employees working off premises.   

Conduct a risk assessment

Have your risks changed with virtual workspaces? As you assess and prioritize work-related risks for individual work groups, consider if these new remote-work locations will be short or long-term.

A few top concerns may include:

  • Ergonomics – repetitive stress injuries from desk set-up, cords, and more
  • Same-level fall – slips and trips in employee environment
  • Mental health – stress and isolation from working alone

Revise operational processes

To better understand and address risks, revisit your existing safety programs and strategies. What gaps need to be covered in this new workplace model? If programs don’t currently exist, formalize an approach to assess and help reduce risks to workers. While short vs long-term strategies may look different, it is important to treat your employees consistently.

As you begin your strategic planning:

  • Create an assessment or feedback process for your business
  • Develop a process for making decisions about resources
  • Identify measures of success, e.g. number of touches to online help resources; number of equipment/peripheral purchases

Adjust resources against risk

What can you do to limit risks for your workers? If your business is saving money by having employees working remotely, consider reallocating some of that budget to employee safety. Be sure to include easy access to resources so employees can get the help they need, with a goal of eliminating any possible barriers to the process. Considerations include:

  • Checking and reallocating resources to support your businesses remote-work strategy.
  • Developing a purchase/delivery process for equipment, furniture, and supporting tools, keeping ease of order process in mind.
  • Defining methods to provide training and knowledge sources for workers

In addition, it’s critical to consider the ergonomic and environmental risks associated with employees who are working remotely. Environmental risks can include walking surfaces, stairs, and overuse of power strips and outlets in the home – to name just a few.

At Helmsman Management Services, we understand that we live in challenging times. It’s why our focus remains on supporting our business partners at every stage with a dedicated team and tailored programs designed to fit your needs.

[1] CNBC.

This website is general in nature, and is provided as a courtesy to you. Information is accurate to the best of Helmsman’s knowledge, but companies and individuals should not rely on it to prevent and mitigate all risks or as an explanation of coverage or benefits under an insurance policy. Consult your professional adviser regarding your particular facts and circumstance. By citing external authorities or linking to other websites, Helmsman is not endorsing them.