Covid-19 Highlights Necessity for Culture of Safety for Workers

Covid-19 Highlights Necessity for Culture of Safety for Workers

By Margie Guerrieri

In addition to facing the challenge of caring for and supporting vulnerable senior populations over the two-year span of the pandemic, another major consideration for senior living operators has been keeping workers safe since Covid-19 spread nationwide. While focusing on worker safety is always important in senior living, it has become acutely critical today.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched a program in March – a “national emphasis program” – to focus on workplace inspections, outreach, and compliance assistance for companies where workers had a high risk of contracting Covid-19. Beyond the expected hotspots for Covid-19, such as manufacturing facilities and meatpacking plants, OSHA would also put a spotlight on assisted living facilities, continuing care retirement communities, home health agencies, skilled nursing facilities and others in health care. OSHA also reminded employers, as part of the Whistleblower Protection Program, that they should not retaliate against workers who lodged complaints about Covid-19 workplace safety. This announcement was a preview of what was to come.

On June 21, OSHA announced a new Emergency Temporary Standard to strengthen efforts to protect workers in health care settings. “Too many of our frontline healthcare workers continue to be at high risk of contracting the coronavirus,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh in a press release announcing the ETS.

The emergency rule requires many health care employers to implement a written Covid-19 infection prevention program, report Covid-19 cases to OSHA, and pay workers who are unable to work due to Covid-19 symptoms. In the prevention plan, operators must cover areas of concern for certain medical procedures, physical distancing, physical barriers, personal protective equipment, cleaning, disinfection, ventilation, health screening, training, recordkeeping and reporting. The ETS also stated providers should encourage employees to get the Covid-19 vaccine; that encouragement later became a mandate.

While OSHA provided templates and guidance for compliance, the rapid deployment for the new standard caught many in senior living off guard. Organizations were expected to comply two weeks after the June 21 launch for some measures, 30 days for others. An estimated 10 million senior living workers fell under the new ETS, and despite pushback from senior living organizations such as LeadingAge and the American Health Care Association for operators to have more implementation time, the ETS was implemented without delay.

Size and Experience Mattered

Larger assisted living, memory care, home care and other senior living providers – especially those affiliated with operators of long-term care facilities – were able to cope with the ETS implementation because they have a framework for worker safety education and oversight in place. “Over the last decade, nursing homes have seen increased scrutiny from OSHA for workplace safety,” said Gloria Martinez, Director of Employee Safety for both WellAge Senior Living and Vivage Senior Living. “Adjusting to these new measures was not as much a burden for our locations since we have systems in place.”

Under the ETS brought on by Covid-19 concerns, OSHA inspectors are conducting on-site visits or remote inspections as needed. Typical triggers for an inspection are a staff complaint or outbreak at a facility. In addition, OSHA is scrutinizing the quality of the on-site safety coordinator in senior living communities. This extends to reviewing their training, experience and ability to dedicate the time necessary to the job. Martinez, who had more than 25 years as a safety and health professional (the last five in health care) before joining Vivage and WellAge, today oversees workplace safety at more than 40 facilities. In this role, she interprets OSHA standards for facility safety coordinators, provides training for supervisors at the communities, and develops everyday safety programs that benefit frontline workers.

“Workplace safety is not a piece of paper, a policy or a procedure,” she said. “It’s about developing a culture of health and safety by creating proactive safety programs.”

While many organizations offer employees computer-based safety training, Martinez says in-person training is essential. She also said when the Covid-19 ETS guidance was released, it was much easier for her to roll out to facilities as systems and procedures were in place.

Safety Saves

OSHA’s ETS for Covid-19 workplace safety comes with a bite from the Department of Labor. “OSHA citations come with maximum penalties of $13,653 per violation,” said Jon M. VonderHaar, a safety services consultant. “Willful or repeated violations can amount to penalties 10 times that.”

Martinez and VonderHaar emphasize that while the Covid-19 ETS is critical to comply with, having an overall culture focused on workplace safety is good for workers – and good for business. They also stress creating a culture of safety must start with organizational leadership to be effective.

Businesses lacking safety practices have more injuries and these injuries have both direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include workers’ compensation payments, medical expenses, and costs for legal services. Examples of indirect costs include training replacement employees, accident investigation and implementation of corrective measures, lost productivity, repairs of damaged equipment and property, and costs associated with lower employee morale and absenteeism. VonderHaar said there are numerous reports that indicate for every dollar spent on workplace safety, there is a return of $3 to $5.

While the Covid-19 ETS left some organizations scrambling this year, the larger issue is creating a culture of safety as a way of business, with formal training the norm and oversight in place internally so an organization can adjust as needed. Martinez calls this Prevention through Design, based on a Harvard Medical Practice Study that found having effective systems and controls in place can enhance worker safety. Having these systems and culture in place reduces an organization’s risk exposure and helps maximize employee potential. In a business where our focus is helping seniors age well and live well, having motivated staff who feel safe is a difference maker.

Margie Guerrieri is the Regional Marketing and Sales Director for WellAge Senior Living, a Colorado-based senior living management company. Visit