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A Bed at the Power Plant – For Quarantine

By Natascha Plankermann, journalist and author for health, education and science-related topics, Düsseldorf (Germany)

Since colleagues are afraid of infecting each other with a dangerous virus, the working world has changed for good. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, protection and hygiene at the workplace play a more important role than ever in companies – in some cases there is even a bed put up at the power plant in case of required quarantine. What these current developments mean for workers, be it on the company premises or at the home office, will be discussed as a focal theme at A+A 2021.

The leading international trade fair with its Congress on Occupation Safety and Health will be held from October 26 – 29, 2021 at the fairgrounds in Düsseldorf, Germany. Experts and representatives from the political sector, research and OSH practice will exchange ideas both on site and digitally.

Continuing to work despite COVID-19 – OSH in Germany reacted quickly to make this possible: less than a month after the pandemic outbreak, a cross-industry minimum standard was created by the German Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (BMAS), which was then backed up with concrete protective measures in the Sars-CoV-2 occupational health and safety regulation. It is constantly updated and to this day outlines the conditions under which people can work in companies. The central term in this context is: risk assessment. Companies must take into account that the risk of COVID-19 infection is added to the hazards to which employees are exposed in the course of their work. But what does this look like in practice?

The Federal Agency for Occupational Health and Safety (BAuA) has conducted various current analyses on occupational safety during the COVID crisis and has studied, among other things, which OSH measures are implemented and which are complied with. The result obtained on the basis of data from the socio-economic panel (SOEP) consisting of over 3,000 responses shows: the duty to wear face masks and keep a distance has become just as normal in German companies as has coughing/sneezing etiquette and regular handwashing. Organizational measures such as flexible working times or the re-organization of tasks and teams, however, are obviously used less frequently. This is criticized by BAuA because, after all, Technology and Organization are to protect Persons first before these undertake measures themselves – in keeping with the TOP principle, which is also anchored in the Act on Occupational Safety and Health.

How this principle can be put into practice is shown by AVR UmweltService in Sinsheim:  Managing Director Peter Mülbaier views it as a logical step that people’s work must be re-organized in the wake of the pandemic. “As a disposal company for commercial waste and an energy supplier operating power plants and solar parks in the Rhein-Neckar region we are part of the vital infrastructure. Operations must go on without putting our 160 employees at risk of potential illness.”

Mülbaier made the re-orientation a matter for top management thereby attaching particular importance to the measures to be implemented. This is what is happening in 98 percent of German companies, according to BAuA observations. In cooperation with a crisis task force, the Managing Director is implementing a strategy that has provided the company with new tools for the future thanks to the experience gained over the months of the pandemic: about 80 percent of employees were initially sent to work from home to radically reduce contacts. By now many employees work on a hybrid rotation – partly at home, partly at the company – and report their working time via App.

The Managing Director and other top executives are never in the same place at the same time and exchange ideas at video conferences in order to avoid illness-induced absenteeism. Waste disposal trucks are operated by identical teams in staggered shifts – “even if one should drop out due to infection, the next follows at a short interval,” explains Peter Mülbaier. All employees are informed about the latest developments related to COVID by the in-house crisis taskforce in a regular newsletter: “This ensures everybody is familiar with the applicable rules and knows what to do,” says the Managing Director. His most unusual preventive measure: he had a bed put up in one of the power plants run by AVR UmweltService in case an employee has to quarantine there. So far it has remained unused as COVID outbreaks have been prevented.

Lutz Lehmann, board member of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Arbeitshygiene (DGAH), a multi-disciplinary professional association for comprehensive occupational safety, and Managing Director of consulting firm Wegner + Lehmann, supports the company in a consulting capacity. Like many of his colleagues (according to a BAuA survey), the OSH expert praises the Sars-CoV-2 occupational safety rule, assessing it as “rock-solid”. He developed the risk assessment tool for every segment of the disposal company on this basis: excel spreadsheets with the necessary measures feature a traffic light system allowing the Managing Director to see and check whether the measures have been implemented (green) or are still open issues (yellow). One example of measures already implemented: the five salesmen in the field work in staggered shifts and can keep a safe distance because there are no double workstations.

Other companies also rely on flexibility and new structures to protect their employees on site – such as chemicals producer OQ (formerly OXEA) with six manufacturing sites all over the world. Some 1,400 people are employed in the biggest factory in Oberhausen alone.  Here colleagues start their shifts without the usual personal handover conversations. Instead, important information is recorded in writing in a shift book or exchanged over the phone. Only once one group of workers has closed the door of the control stand at the factory does the next group enter the room – always the same group of people keeping a 1.5-meter distance.

For OQ the same applies as for AVR UmweltService: those in charge at the company continue to be careful and observe the development of the pandemic, which they have mastered well so far with their new tools. This is also the course charted for the future even though not all obstacles have been overcome. Peter Mülbaier, for example, is concerned because not all employees have wanted to be vaccinated so far – and they cannot be legally obliged to do so either.

How the cohesion within companies will develop in such a dynamic situation is also a matter of concern for the expert panel at “Rat der Arbeitswelt” (Council of the Working World). In its first report on occupational safety and health this council assumes that working from home will gain in importance in future – but would also like to ensure sufficient employee presence at the office “to guarantee communication and innovative power in everyday work”. For Peter Mülbaier the community feeling also plays a role in this context: “We will probably not be able to invite staff to a Christmas party while many continue to decline vaccination offers.”

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