Adding Infection Control Behaviors into Behavioral Safety Systems: Beyond COVID-19

During this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, have repeatedly advocated behavior change as mitigating steps to reduce the rate of infections in the population. 

"There's no magic bullet. There's no magic vaccine or therapy. It's just behaviors."—Dr. Deborah Birx, White House Press Conference, 3/31/20.

In those press conferences, we have seen how hard it is to change behavior from well-established habits such as handshaking and standing shoulder to shoulder with others, even for people motivated to change.  News accounts have also reported many instances of people failing to maintain social distancing by crowding into beaches, parks, and markets. Perhaps some people don’t see the value in changing their behavior, or think, “It won’t happen to me.” 

All of these truths about behavior change mean organizations should be thinking about what to do in the months to come when more people go back to work. A likely scenario is that people will be returning to work before new vaccines can be deployed across the world to shut down this pandemic entirely. This means that mitigating infection will still be essential.

For the safety of your employees, implementing some of the behaviors recommended for public health by the Centers for Disease Control should be considered. The behaviors that are required for the health and safety of employees depend on the nature of your workplace, as well as the degree of virus transmissibility at that time. Behaviors include:   

  • Maintain social distance (6 ft. separation) at workstations, walkways, lunchrooms, in meetings, etc.
  • Frequent and proper handwashing
  • Wear face coverings (PPE)
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Cough/sneeze into your elbow

Are behaviors such as these likely to occur naturally in the workplace with the right quality or frequency? Probably not. Many of these behaviors were rare habits in the population prior to this pandemic. During the pandemic, many workers have been sheltering at home in relative isolation, where social distancing may not be needed and handwashing patterns may be different from what is necessary at work. When people return to the workplace, the old patterns of behavior may continue or reemerge. Everyone in the workplace will benefit if infection control behaviors are included in behavioral safety efforts as long as this strain of coronavirus continues to be active. Behavioral safety systems such as ADI’s Behavior-Based Safety or Safety Leadership can provide the additional prompting, feedback, and reinforcement to strengthen these behaviors.

Look again at that short list of behaviors above. Many of those behaviors could also prevent or reduce infection by normal cold viruses, as well as other diseases like seasonal influenza. “Cold and flu season” is an annual occurrence lasting many months, taking a substantial toll on worker health and productivity even without the ravages of this novel coronavirus. Dr. Fauci made this very point in an April 8th interview with the Wall Street Journal when he said that another behavior change, an end to handshaking, would help reduce future transmissions of the novel coronavirus and cut the number of influenza cases as well.

There is a lesson here going forward and after this pandemic: Infection control behaviors should take a more prominent place in the mix of behaviors critical to workplace safety and should be addressed by behavioral safety systems. If you already have a behavioral safety system in place, add these behaviors; if you don’t have such a system, it’s time to invest in one.

Posted by Cloyd Hyten, Ph.D.

Cloyd is a senior consultant and thought leader in the field of performance improvement. Dedicating more than 20 years to this work, Cloyd has also served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and served as President of the OBM Network. Outside of work, Cloyd enjoys history, food and football.