Training partner - March 2021
28 January 2021
As lockdown continues, examinations are one of the exemptions. Here, Gary Fallaize looks at managing COVID risk in safety training.
WELL 2021 has got off to a flying start! I can’t think of a more challenging time for the UK economy since perhaps the three day week (yes I am old enough to remember). Ignoring BREXIT and the USA, for now, Covid is dominating the UK’s headlines both with the dramatic increases in cases, and unfortunately deaths, but also with a glimmer of future hope from the vaccine roll out.
The rather hasty return of the government's simple message “Stay At Home, Protect The NHS, Save Lives” is an indication of how serious things are - no common sense allowed this time. Infection rates of 1 in 50, higher in some areas, and the more virulent UK or Kent strain of the virus is making it increasingly challenging to control the spread. As usual the Government's guidelines are less than clear in places and include various loopholes or exemptions to allow some economic activity to continue.
One such exemption allows examinations to take place, which has posed a bit of a dilemma for RRC. We had run exams last autumn when infection rates were significantly less and we had the good old less infectious strain of the disease. We had undertaken a very detailed risk assessment, which resulted in many additional measures added to our already detailed exam procedures to ensure our learners’ and invigilators’ safety. January saw a new set of exams a week after the “lockdown” was introduced and in a very different environment. I should mention that these were higher level Health & Safety exams so we are dealing with a group who would easily spot errors or omissions in our Risk Assessment or control measures.
Both the examining body and Government allowed these to proceed, with the caveat “if safe to do so” added to ensure no blame came their way if there were any problems. For RRC, if we cancelled we would probably have some unhappy learners, 6 months until the next scheduled exams, and a not insignificant financial loss. A couple of venues had cancelled and we were getting worried messages from our invigilators and some of our learners. So it was back to the risk assessment - was it still valid and if not could we improve the control measures. The key factors were the far higher number of people infected, the new strain being more infectious and continued resistance from a small but vocal part of the general population to take the risk seriously. Given the numbers attending, it was reasonable to assume a far higher risk of an infected person attending. There was also a significant risk of coming into contact with an infected person travelling to and from the venue. Information on the new strain of the virus was difficult to find but did bring into doubt whether two meter distancing in the exam room was sufficient given we previously allowed masks to be removed during the exam.
The additional controls we could put in place were temperature checks, increased ventilation, windows open in January for a 3 hour exam, and make wearing a mask compulsory throughout the exam. These produced additional issues with being unable to heat rooms sufficiently with the windows open and the necessity for increased supervision to make sure masks were being worn correctly, (yes our experience is even a small number of safety people do not follow the rules). Looking at the wider environment, use of public transport posed a high risk as did any environment where there were a significant number of people. The inevitable conclusion was we were unable to sufficiently negate the risks for learners or staff.
There were some moral arguments, that as a Health and Safety training provider we should be setting an absolute example, encouraging everybody to stay at home and go over and above what is allowed. Then there is the financial argument; it would be bad for our business, with direct and indirect financial losses and potential customer dissatisfaction.
There was however an inevitability with our deliberations, we knew we had to cancel, but knowing some of our competitors would press ahead added to the risk of disappointment and anger from the learners who had worked so hard to be ready for the exams. As things transpired the most common reaction was relief that we had made the decision. Our learners were, on the whole, conflicted - yes they wanted to do the exam but they knew they would be taking a risk in doing so. A couple were very angry with us and it is unlikely they will remain our customers, but we are looking at 1% of those involved.
I appreciate COVID creates similar issues for nearly all organisations who like us are wrestling with the conflicting safety, moral and financial dilemma. It is an incredibly fast moving situation where the landscape is constantly changing and definitive reliable information can be hard to find. This provides a huge challenge to all organisations who I suspect like us are constantly reviewing the plans and policies, and without definitive information are having to make very difficult judgement calls. As always the press are very good at pointing out those who make poor decisions but say little about the vast majority who are working exceptionally hard to both stay in business and keep their customers and staff safe. I personally am very pleased that RRC is in the overlooked group.
Gary Fallaize is head of sales and marketing at RRC International. For more information, visit www.rrc.co.uk