Time to face it: leaders have an enormous responsibility for safety and should wear face masks in the workplace. Use these facts and practices to help your team breathe easy.

Time to face it: leaders have an enormous responsibility for safety and should wear face masks in the workplace. Use these facts and practices to help your team breathe easy.

Contributing Authors: Kate Bourque and Tim Sweet

Workers are now returning to offices and bringing with them a wide variety of opinions and sensitivities when it comes to wearing masks.  Meanwhile, more and more jurisdictions and businesses are implementing mandatory mask-wearing laws and policies.

Mandatory masking has become an issue of personal identity and polarizing values. Unchecked, this conflict threatens to unravel corporate unity and undermine cultures of safety. How will your organization respond in a way that is credible and consistent with your values and established safety culture?

After reading this you will have five data points and four behaviours you can use to inspire a safe, consistent approach to phased reopening.

Five Facts on Masks and Safety Leadership

1) The workplace is conducive to COVID-19 transmission

​As we learn more about how COVID-19 is transmitted, it’s clear that sharing the same air is a major risk factor. “being in a small enclosed area in close contact with many others is one of the highest-risk activities one can do”, says Dr. Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist and professor at Kent State University’s College of Public Health.

A growing number of infection events can be traced back to groups spending even a few minutes together with an infectious carrier in close proximity, especially indoors.

2) The threat level of COVID-19 is higher than other workplace threats

Close to 1,000 Canadians lose their lives to work-related deaths every year – a workplace fatality rate of 2.8 deaths per 100,000 Canadians working or otherwise. Appropriately, Canadian companies spend billions of dollars on safety to prevent a single occupational injury, let alone someone’s death.

In 2018, there were 5.2 vehicle fatalities per 100,000 population (the second lowest year on record in Canada).
The mortality rate related to COVID-19 in Canada as of July 3, 2020, is 23 deaths per 100,000 population and growing; a rate 4 times higher than vehicle fatalities and almost ten times higher than occupational fatalities within our population.

Though seat belts were controversial when first introduced, most motorists today don’t question that they are a reasonable and effective precaution. (Even hand washing was at one time a controversial medical practice)

3) Masks are reasonable personal protective equipment (PPE)

Physical distancing alone is not sufficient to prevent the occurrence of subsequent waves of a pandemic, which may be more infectious or severe as happened with the deadly second wave of the 1918 Flu Pandemic.

“The only way we get back to work is to mask.” says Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of UC San Francisco’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. “All of the data tells us – it’s pretty clear that masking is the element that changes the trajectories of the COVID pandemic.”

Health authorities have recognized the risk of asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread of COVID-19, with “silent disease transmission” accounting for over 50% of COVID-19 cases. At that rate, a symptom-based approach simply will not work.

At TWE, we’ve invested in hardhats, steel-toed boots, eye and ear protection, and flame retardant clothing to be able to visit client sites. These costs we accept readily to protect our own safety, the safety of others, and to uphold the safety values we share with clients. ​If we invest time and effort in training, providing, and enforcing use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for other quantifiable hazards, why wouldn’t we continue to do it now?

Non-medical and cloth masks suitable for the workplace are now inexpensive, or in many cases free, and can be easily sourced. Be aware, however, that it’s important to select effective masks and to wear them safely in accordance with guidance from local health authorities.

4) A COVID-19 infection in your staff or their families can be costly

One case of COVID-19 can incapacitate a workforce, cripple operations, increase disability claims, and drive customers away, and this is on top of the risk of tragic loss of life or debilitating complications.

At TWE, we’ve seen businesses send staff into self-isolation for two weeks, after a single lab-confirmed case where sufficient mitigation procedures were not in place.

Many businesses could be put under completely if they had to cease operations again after a phased re-opening, let alone the risks to morale.

5) There is a risk to trust in leadership

Not everyone can wear standard masks, due to breathing difficulties, a medical condition, or a disability. But if you have no medical reason not to, sporting a mask is visible proof you care about the health of others.

As a recent journal article published in The Royal Society’s Proceedings A noted:

A key message from our analyses to aid the widespread adoption of masks would be: ‘my mask protects you, your mask protects me’.

As leaders, we must walk the talk.

The Masked Mindset

Like seat belts, airbags, and crumple zones in vehicles, masks are just one part of a full complement of infection prevention strategies. Hand hygiene, physical distancing, and staying home when sick are still the most effective steps we can all take.

Institutionally, active screening, continuous disinfection, ghost shifting, sick policies, and other tactics are part of a full complement of options for reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Still, when leading an organization through change, it is important to build people’s faith and commitment. As leaders, we have substantial influence through the behaviours we model directly. When we can’t even know if we might be sick and spreading COVID-19, masks remain a visible indicator of our dedication to the  proactive protection of those around us. 

Are you willing to be someone else’s patient zero

​​Putting it into Practice

Here are four simple behaviours that will help you lead consciously through this pandemic:

  • Be aware of your own biases and beliefs
  • Lead with facts from local medical authorities or peer-reviewed sources
  • Listen to understand the nature of a person’s resistance
  • Be consistent with your application and enforcement

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