Posted on Monday, June 15th, 2020

In February 2020, Fisher & Heymann (2020) warned that the transmissibility of Covid-19 was not fully understood and that its potential to become endemic was also unknown. Four months later, the position on transmissibility is unchanged but, we now know that Covid-19 is, indeed, a pandemic (source, World Health Organization) and are returning to work amidst it. So, what should an Organisation focus on?

Here, the focus is not on social distancing etc. or risks readily identified and corrected in the physical environment. Instead, our focus is on those who could be returning to work with pandemic related, or aggravated, stress.


Life-Stress and Accidents
Whilst notions of accident proneness can be controversial, short term accident proneness, or accidents occurring as the result of life stress, seems to be generally supported by research (Valentine et al 1977). Furthermore, no organisation can eliminate the harmful psychological effects of negative life events (Reason 1990).

The essence of those statements are still correct (Kabat-Zinn 2013) so it will assist, amidst the psychological consequences of the current pandemic, to hear more from the researchers…..

It appears that psychological stress, anxiety, conflict, guilt, depression or tension, among other factors, very often precede accidents. Divorce or separation, a death in the family, financial difficulties, among other stressful situations, appear to be linked to accident causation (Valentine et al).

The link between stress and accidents arises, of course, because high levels of unbeneficial stress (more so when persistent) cause a massive increase in the number of errors we make and, in consequence, our accident liability increases.


Life Stress and Error
Here, our concern is with safety critical errors (i.e. those that threaten, for instance, life or major asset) that are caused, psychologically, by preoccupation or distraction that is not Organisational in origin. Such errors have always been capable of prediction (i.e. regarding who, when and where) but, predictive capability and the means to additional preventive management is now considerably enhanced in respect of pandemic related stress. That is, we have advance warning that many individuals involved in safety critical tasks will be returning to work with an increased susceptibility to error.


What Can Be Done
Before looking at what can be done, recall the causes of psychological stress identified earlier above by Valentine et al and add, in the context here, things such as…..

•   Ongoing problems at home caused by ‘confinement’ during initial and/or subsequent lockdowns;

•   Isolation and loneliness for those who live alone;

•   Ongoing fears as to whether a family member or loved one will contract the virus post-lockdown;

•   Health concerns about returning to work (willingly or under pressure) even though finances may demand it;

•   Financial concerns and worries (e.g. bills, rent, mortgage);

•   Health concerns regarding travel for work and/or to and from it;

•   Individual fears regarding increased risk of exposure generally;

•   Friction between employees due to differing opinions on the risk of infection;

•   Job uncertainty; e.g. redundancy should business fail or a second wave occur.


Concerns and worries like those above are more than capable of pre-occupying and distracting people. Whatever else is done, the astute and proactive Organisation will assume that many employees and contractors are affected and……

•   Seek assurances that internal processes designed to encourage employees and contractors to report concerns are fully operational and robust;

•   Seek assurances that internal processes designed to raise (or detect) and respond to stress related matters are fully operational and robust;

•   Ensure that safety and operations are alert to behavioural changes in individuals and/or groups both generally and in respect of tendencies towards risk exposure;

•   Task safety and operations to test their safety critical preventive mechanisms with the increased presence of these predictable causes of accidents in mind and attend accordingly to any system improvement opportunities.


Cite as IIAI/RDC – 15/6/20.

Read follow on article, Covid-19 and Human Behaviour.


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