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Coping with Covid: how Indian businesses are protecting their workers

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Although the number of Covid-19 infections continues to rise in India, many businesses have now re-opened as the lockdown has gradually been eased across many parts of the country.


However, Indian businesses must adopt strict precautions to help control the spread of infection among workers and members of the public. These include ensuring adequate social distancing between people at work, frequently sanitising the workplace and staggering the timings of work shifts and lunch breaks.

Safety Management asked two experts from the fields of business and occupational health and safety how businesses are coping with the new rules and precautions. We also asked them for any advice for businesses who are struggling to adequately protect their workers and the public from the risk of Covid-19 infection.   

We interviewed Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), and Suresh Tanwar, Head of Audit and Consultancy at the British Safety Council in India.

How well are businesses in all industries complying with the government rules designed to control the spread of Covid-19 in workplaces and public buildings?

Chandrajit: We are seeing very close compliance to the protocols devised for the health and safety of employees across the various sectors. With the scaling down of the lockdown, it is not possible to open up all businesses completely, and there are issues regarding the transport of employees that mean they are not able to fully return to the workplace.

Many offices and factories are instituting new procedures and measures to ensure social distancing. As companies could be required to shut down their operations in the event of cases of Covid-19 being found among their workers, they are taking the utmost care not to interrupt business.

The government regulations on reducing the spread of Covid-19 in workplaces and public premises are very comprehensive and detailed and are designed in different ways for different sectors. Many of these rules and guidelines were drafted in consultation with industry and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), of which I am the Director General, submitting sector-wise suggestions as well. The rules are very appropriate and they are necessary to minimise the risk to peoples’ health from coronavirus. With only small numbers of employees currently able and allowed to return to their workplaces due to various reasons, companies seem to be able to adhere strictly to the rules.

Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

Are any specific business sectors struggling to comply with the rules designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in workplaces?

Chandrajit: The problems will perhaps become more challenging once business operations begin to grow to a larger scale. At the current level of operation, compliance with the rules is possible and there seem to be few instances of significant work-related infections.

The sectors that are facing a more significant challenge in successfully protecting workers and others against Covid-19 infection include the customer-facing sectors where interaction among people cannot always be avoided. Even then, the retail shops, factories, airlines and hotels that are functioning are conscious of their responsibilities. For small businesses, compliance could be an issue due to added costs as well as lack of access to the required equipment.

Suresh: There are some sectors that are likely to face challenges in achieving suitable social distancing between the workforce. Examples include where there are fixed workstations for filling and packing – such as in the production of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) – and the automobile manufacturing industry, where the fitting of different parts takes place. As these are fixed workstations, some design changes will have to be made to maintain the physical distance of two metres and to that extent these businesses could be affected by cost and time factors when seeking to achieve adequate social distancing.

Suresh Tanwar, Head of Audit and Consultancy at the British Safety Council in India.

Have businesses successfully used technology to protect workers from Covid-19?  

Chandrajit: The government’s Aarogya Setu mobile app is being widely used and is a handy way to identify people infected or suspected to be infected with Covid-19.

There are reports of companies increasingly using robots or machines for some simple actions where direct human contact is required, to avoid transmission of the virus. One of the outcomes of the crisis has been leveraging fintech for transactions and more small businesses have started using this instead of cash transactions. Companies are also investing in digital technology to reach out to customers. E-commerce has gained increasing traction during these times as well and most businesses are deploying this route to sell products. Cloud solutions are also being used to predict the most risky spots which can then be avoided.

Suresh: Some companies have installed touch-free mechanisms on the taps in washrooms and some have introduced technology that allows passenger lifts to be operated without touching the buttons. However, these changes are in the early stages.

How can Indian businesses learn from the good practices adopted by others to control the spread of Covid-19? Are there any ways they can access best practice advice and case studies?

Chandrajit: The CII has compiled a database of best industry practices, which can be found at: www.ciicovid19update.in

One company is using Enterprise AI (artificial intelligence) and Industrial IoT (internet of things) applications to keep the workforce safe and healthy at factories, offices and public spaces. It has developed and launched solutions for monitoring and ensuring the health and safety of people in public places, offices, factories, and schools etc. These technologies can be used to drive business continuity today, and productivity and safety post-Covid-19. The AI products can also be used for monitoring workplace compliance of the use of safety gear, helmets, social distancing, face masks etc.

Another example is an engineer who created a simple, low-cost solution for homemade PVC covers for no-touch positioning of hand carts during the assembly process on the shop floor of a manufacturing plant. We are seeing a lot of innovation taking place which can be successfully rolled out by other organisations, and we have been collating various information on our website.

Do you have any additional advice for businesses on how they can comply with the rules and protect workers and the public from Covid-19?

Chandrajit: Businesses should draw up a standard operating protocol that sets out a timeline of what steps to take during each day of operation and when to do it. It is also important to provide regular reminders on the Covid-19 precautions everyone should follow – for example, through the site’s digital public address system.

We need to continue to ensure that people work from home whenever possible, even if this entails some loss of productivity. Workplace sanitation is also of the utmost importance and also instils confidence among workers. The provision of masks, sanitisation materials, thermal scanners, and maintaining norms of social distancing – including by holding digital rather than face-to-face meetings – is critical.

Companies must also follow the official protocol covering the steps to take in the event of positive cases of Covid-19 emerging among their workforce. From another perspective, multiple guidelines by different authorities in central, state and local administrations can be confusing.

The situation with respect to small businesses is a concern, as they often do not have the means to comply with all the regulations. Once normal operations resume, it may be more difficult for them to maintain social distancing and sanitation protocols while at the same time meeting production schedules.

The CII therefore urge local administrations to ensure that all sanitation equipment is available to small enterprises, including through rental means, and that the local officials conduct regular visits to the premises of small businesses to meet any gaps that arise.

Suresh: Ultimately, the control of Covid-19 boils down to three major control measures and they cut across all sectors of business and industry and all organisations.

These are: the correct wearing of face masks; maintaining physical distance in locations such as meeting rooms and canteens; and frequent washing of hands.

Besides that, sanitising frequently touched objects is another very important control measure.

While these are some of the key control measures to adopt, the precautions should be based on the results of a suitable and sufficient risk assessment. Therefore, it is vital that an appropriate risk assessment is carried out for all activities where there is a risk of transmission of the virus.

The list of rules is relatively short and it should be possible in most cases to fully comply with them. Business leaders may need to use their ingenuity and take an innovative approach to protect workers and others from Covid-19, making the necessary amends and modifications where necessary.

Some companies have been quick to not only comply with the rules but have gone beyond this and implemented innovative control measures to prevent the risk of infection.

For the latest government advice on Covid-19 see:
https://www.mygov.in/covid-19

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