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Weather the storm

09 May 2022

As the dust starts to settle after a turbulent two years with Covid, Mark Howarth says we need to develop better foresight to ensure we are best prepared to weather the storm.

AT THE risk of sounding trite or opening myself up to accusations of stating the obvious – it’s safe to say that the past two years have been an interesting time for those of us involved in health and safety, PPE and the management of risk. 

Never have we seen a time when awareness and adoption of PPE has been so fervently driven, applied and accepted by so many, across all walks of life – and settings. 

Collectively we’ve revelled in the increased public awareness around a specific airborne hazard and manufacturers, importers and distributors alike have marvelled at the increase in sales of PPE. Shareholders have taken a shine to the amazing profits and dividends this generated too! 

At the same time the actions of un-regulated and “fly -by night” suppliers have taken a toll on naive customers large and small alike. The now well -publicised feeding frenzy has I fear, tarnished the reputation of the PPE industry in the public psyche. I’m sure that many of us in the UK health and safety community have railed at the vast amounts of low-quality information being fed to a voracious audience, in turn driving equally low-quality procurement decisions…I’m sure there’s a whole white paper that could be written on that topic.

All fun and games! How the last two years have flown, but as the dust settles (no pun intended for this article – I promise), and we all adjust to a world fundamentally and permanently changed from that comparative paradise which we inhabited just two short years ago, the question many are asking is “what have we learned – collectively?” – this question is laudable in that it seeks understanding. That said, understanding is only useful for the here and now. What we must all seek to develop is foresight – If we accept that “foresightis the magnet that stops humanity from slipping off the knife edge of evolution” (thank you Georges Van Hoegarden) then the question which we must all turn our minds to is “What next?”

The serious non-health related impact of Covid has been felt globally across all industries. We all know about the high-profile winners. News that Jeff Bezos – already on a roll before the pandemic – could pay every single one of his 876,000 employees a bonus of $105,000 and still be as wealthy as he was at the onset of the pandemic should be a clear indicator of the size of the wealth transfer which the pandemic has brought about. In the six months immediately after the WHO officially called COVID a “pandemic” it is estimated that as many as 400 million people lost their jobs. Even more worryingly, a disproportionate percentage of this number were women. Half a billion people were driven into poverty as a result. (source – Oxfam Power – profits -pandemic report)

As a result of the demand for PPE at the onset of the pandemic, many big-name businesses (and unheard-of new entrants) involved in the supply of Covid related PPE have posted record profits in the last two years and delivered handsome dividends to their shareholder groups. 

The record shareholder pay-outs we saw last year are set starkly against a backdrop of the now well-documented supply chain challenges we see today, raw material cost price increases, volatile currency markets and latterly a war in Europe. 

This has driven many of those super profitable organisations with hyper extended supply chains, a reliance on raw materials and large workforces in remote locations to seek to push price increases of >20% into the market in the last 12 months alone.

The spectre of global hyper-inflation has raised it’s head for the first time since the beginning of the 20thcentury and the central banks are printing money at a scale never before seen. Financial commentators are predicting that we’ll all be affected by the geopolitical and geo-financial storm which is on the horizon. 

This unique, never-before witnessed set of circumstances has given rise to many and varied, unexpected downstream effects. With demand still firmly outstripping supply in key product groups – typically those of a more technical nature- the huge and continued increase in commodity, fuel, utilities, food & labour costs will see a perfect storm for many employers, endeavouring to pay a dividend to shareholders or just keep the lights on and the workforce payed, in an increasingly volatile market.

If experience and history tell us anything, those businesses who rely on the provision of some form of PPE in order to continue their core activities will look at fixed costs with far more focus in the coming months and years. One thing that is guaranteed is that when the global economy stutters, credit is difficult ans expensive to obtain and cashflow is tight, decisions may increasingly be made based on cost per unit. It follows that quality of product or provision of the correct product could suffer and ultimately, the end user may potentially have their safety, health and wellbeing compromised.

PPE which helps mitigate acute problems, due to its very nature, may be identified and have a greater probability of being effectively managed, even if money is short. As an example, the provision of the correct cut resistant hand protection is one which is very obvious should the protection be reduced or unavailable. It’s obvious that you have cut on your hand… it hurts and you bleed, so it’s difficult to ignore. 

Conversely, those risks which give rise to chronic health effects and therefore the PPE that mitigates those risks, may become a soft target for those procurement departments within businesses who are be seeking to make immediate savings, and by either ignorance or a wilful desire to “kick the can down the road”, savings will be made, product may be substituted or even omitted and the health of a generation of workers in many industries could be negatively affected.

As a community of health and safety professionals we all appreciate and work daily to address the challenges surrounding the “levelling up” of all stakeholders in the provision of PPE designed to protect wearers against chronic health effects. If you’ve got this far in this article you’ll know that the provision of respiratory protection falls squarely into this category and when times are lean, it’s vulnerable to bad decision making based on cost controls. 

My great fear is that as a community we are (in large part) missing the opportunity to develop foresight based on the events of the last two years. We seem obsessed with returning to the way we were in 2019. The truth is that the world has changed – forever. The global economic shockwave created by the impact of Covid is about to actually engulf us all and most importantly, the end users may be the “silent second wave” victims of our lack of foresight. 

Ultimately, we’re a business community built upon the provision of products & services designed to protect people, and with Corporate Social Responsibility being the order of the day for many, are we not obliged to put people before profit? 

Should our industry, which has generally enjoyed super-profitability for the last two years, continue to pay huge dividends to share-holders while at the same time pushing large price increases into the market?

Most importantly though, how can we ensure that the global financial issues we see developing do not adversely affect the health of a generation of people. How can we help businesses continue to supply the right PPE to the ultimate end users?

If we haven’t realised that the supplier / customer relationship is dead (cause of death Covid19) then we’d all better and soon. I propose to you, that any relationship between manufacturer/importer/distributor/buyer/end user must now be viewed as a symbiosis. 

Without one element there can be no outcome which is desired.

As a community, it’s time to be pragmatic and give back wherever we can. We’ll have a better chance to weather the storm if we pull together and help one another.

Mark Howarth is general manager at CleanAir. For more information, visit www.clean-air.uk