March 10, 2022 / By Larry Sloan and Kenneth Martinez

Takeaways from the C.L.E.A.N. Summit on Protecting Our Most Vulnerable Workers

On January 25, AIHA, in partnership with the Integrated Bioscience and Built Environment Consortium (IBEC), put on a half-day virtual symposium titled “Protecting Our Most Vulnerable Workers: Challenges, Solutions and Invisible Barriers.” Nearly 300 people attended this unprecedented event, which featured industry-specific panel sessions on first responders, teachers, gig workers, and construction workers, moderated and presented by subject matter experts. James Frederick, the deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Labor, was the keynote speaker. The symposium was part of the C.L.E.A.N. Summit series, which highlights ways to help people get back to work safely by focusing on the parameters of confidence, leadership, exposure reduction, awareness, and next steps.

Funded by a grant from CDC, the Summit achieved its goals of addressing current best practices, data-driven solutions, and innovative technologies that help people feel confident and safe gathering indoors. The Summit also identified challenges that remain as organizations work to reopen their doors safely for employees and constituents.

On behalf of AIHA and IBEC, we express our deepest appreciation to the moderators who assembled exceptional speakers and prepared on-point questions that stimulated candid discussions. The panelists poignantly illustrated their experiences and the challenges of working amid the pandemic, providing attendees with food for thought about what they have been experiencing over the past few years and offering insights on how professionals in the same business sectors may manage similar challenges. Here, we offer a few takeaways from the Summit.

Opening Keynote: James Frederick

Mr. Frederick graciously acknowledged the efforts of OEHS professionals during the pandemic. He stated that OSHA is interested in identifying the needs of vulnerable occupations, referring to the agency’s National Emphasis Program (PDF) on workers who are at the highest risk for exposure to COVID-19.

First Responders’ Panel

Participants on the first responders’ panel agreed that rapidly changing guidance during the pandemic has created challenges and dictated a need for continuous and frequent communications through emails, social media, and centralized notification systems to ensure that first responders are aware of current practices to be applied in the field. This regular cadence is beneficial no matter where the responders are based, whether in large urban centers or smaller volunteer-based units.

Early in the pandemic, keeping an adequate supply of resources (such as PPE) was a major challenge that completely changed the complexion of emergency response. The standard model of rapid access, assessment, triage, treatment, and transport evolved to a slower and more deliberate strategy that considered PPE utilization and focused assessment of sick-call scenarios.

Law enforcement recognized that they would not be able to keep COVID-19 out of the station house. Gordon Helper of the Los Angeles Police Department noted that the front desk at his station was closed during the pandemic and public contact was provided through a side gate.

Educators’ Panel

Amy Bahruth of the American Federation of Teachers observed that because every school district is unique, and every building in each district is unique, pandemic precautions needed to be specific to every school facility. Claire Barnett of the Healthy Schools Network discussed the special considerations schools must account for when addressing clean air and water in school buildings. These buildings are more densely populated than nursing homes, and 96 percent of occupants are women and children.

Gig Workers’ Panel

When educating workers, especially those who are decentralized and working alone without a corporate infrastructure, it is important to provide trustworthy sources and universally known health and safety principles to gain their buy-in, according to Corey Boles, senior health scientist at Cardno ChemRisk. “None of the risk mitigation practices will work if there is no trust among the workers,” Boles said.

Construction Workers’ Panel

Having translations of safety protocols for non-native English speakers is imperative in construction, according to Bryan Ortiz, a safety management consultant with Associated General Contractors. “Some employers might look at non-native speakers as a nuisance,” Ortiz said. “But you need to look at them as part of your business. You rely on these people.... If you can’t have these employees play an active role in the safety program within the company, you are not going to be very successful.”

Travis Parsons of the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America noted that prioritizing mental health is key to getting employees through the pandemic. He recommended that OEHS professionals ensure that workers are involved and engaged in the company’s safety and health program. “If we don’t have worker engagement, we can’t have safety on the job,” Parsons said. “Without engagement, workers don’t get that feeling of belonging. If workers don’t feel like they belong, there’s no way they are going to be safe.”

The Summit was recorded and can be watched online in its entirety at no charge. Many thanks to IBEC for convening and managing this outstanding event.

By Larry Sloan and Kenneth Martinez

Larry Sloan is CEO of AIHA.

Kenneth Martinez, CIH, is the chief science officer of IBEC.


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