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Protecting workers with innovation and resilience in 2021

The events of 2020 has set the stage for WHS in 2021
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Protecting workers with innovation and resilience in 2021

Protecting workers with innovation and resilience in 2021

8 January 2021

By Gaby Grammeno

To say 2020 was a challenging year is a massive understatement. The triple whammy of bushfires, pandemic and collapsing businesses upended life as usual for many. But at the same time, the impact of these events sparked an explosion of thinking outside the ‘old normal’, with employers discovering the online market, finding new ways of operating or re-inventing themselves altogether – setting the stage for WHS in 2021.

The online market

Though digital marketplaces had been raising their profile with the consumer industry for many years, the shift in consumer behaviour during the spread of COVID-19 spurred a further rapid acceleration as business owners learned to meet consumers where they were more likely to shop – in cyberspace.

As a result of this change, many in the retail industry have been protected from the risk of exposure to the virus, as well as the other potential hazards of interacting with the public, such as stress and abuse, and even the likelihood of contracting a cold or the flu.


The increasing predominance of eCommerce and online working with digital connections with staff and colleagues has meant the home has become the workplace for much greater numbers than was previously the case.

WHS issues that have emerged from the mass migration to working from home include home-based hazards such as sore backs, necks and other soft tissue conditions associated with poor workstation setups and postures; slip, trip and fall incidents; the difficulty of balancing domestic and occupational commitments, and mental stress.

The switch to home-based working has in many cases ramped up anxiety in relation to technical challenges. Moreover, the loss of colleagues’ company and camaraderie has often resulted in feelings of isolation and heightened job insecurity.

This is likely to continue into 2021, as workers resist returning to the tyranny of the old ways of operating. Predictably, this will result in higher levels of mental strain, burnout and depression as people struggle to cope with increasing uncertainty.

For employers, the take-home message is that their health and safety obligations remain in place, that their duty of care applies to workers’ psychological health just as it does to their physical health, and that they need to do whatever is reasonably practicable to provide a mentally healthy working environment and ensure workers stay physically and psychologically fit.

Employers would do well to increase their efforts to educate workers about the importance of proactively looking for environmental risks and ways of working that could damage their physical or mental wellbeing. For example, people should avoid working with the head tilted forwards while gazing downwards at the screen of a laptop, phone or tablet, or spending long unbroken hours of sedentary work without a break for physical activity using different muscle groups and a different focus for the eyes, instead of staring at a screen for hours on end.

Future pandemics and environmental threats

Epidemics and other disease outbreaks in recent years – SARS, swine flu, bird flu, ebola, MERS, COVID-19 – have shown a pattern of human contact with previously unencountered long circulating viruses. This can occur when humans search wild habitat to traffick wild animal sales at live markets.

This is a global issue inevitably exacerbated by human population growth, so the chances are that the current coronavirus pandemic will not be the last which today’s working people have to cope with. We may have to deal with other lockdowns and business disruptions sooner rather than later, just as we’ll need to cope with more storms, floods, heatwaves and fires, so the imperative for business now is resilience, and innovation is a central pillar for building resilience.

Re-inventing what and how business is done

Media reporting in the latter part of 2020 was full of stories about how businesses and individuals have been finding new ways of doing what they did before, or a new line of work altogether – such as printers who switched to manufacturing PPE, and pilots turning themselves into beekeepers.

This option of creative, transformative thinking will surely be a key strategy in managing health and safety challenges as well as basic business viability in 2021.

Further information

Safe Work Australia provides useful guidance for employers with staff working from home.

Guidance on minimising the risk of mental health issues for workers.

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