The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on ESH teams like never before. In a year where quick pivots and updating practices were the name of the game, ESH teams had to learn new skills and jump through hoops to keep their employees safe, productive and healthy. While each company had slightly varying responses, there are shared experiences and trends across the profession.
The Semiconductor Environmental, Safety and Health Association (SESHA) that serves the high technology and associated industries today concludes its 43rd annual symposium. In the opening roundtable discussion, ESH professionals from the semiconductor and high-tech industries, including Apple, practices in this changing landscape.
Here are highlights of five key trends from the past year.
Expanded ESH priorities.
In 2020, everyday ESH priorities were paired with the necessity to keep up to date on CDC, OSHA state and local guidelines for COVID-19 mitigation as the safety and health of employees became front and center. These shifting priorities meant that ESH leaders found themselves working collaboratively with HR and other members of companies’ emergency planning teams and leading companywide meetings to keep employees informed on the latest updates and best practices. ESH teams also had to secure and source additional supplies that were, at times, a challenge to find.
New recognition of what environmental safety entails.
Once the reality of the pandemic set in, other departments began looking to ESH for guidance, not only on health and safety, but also on enforcing employee reliability and other COVID-19 precautions. All of these challenges were also balanced with a consideration for employee mental health, assessing work from home productivity and safe office working situations. Before the pandemic, the ESH team often worked under the radar among their peers, still implementing safety practices, but not in such a high-stakes environment. The events of the past year helped everyone understand the need for ESH on a ubiquitous level, and the role was more recognized by senior management.
New protocols and trainings.
A significant portion of ESH professionals held their working environments to higher standards than OSHA and CDC requirements. This means time was spent developing and teaching new processes to employees, both in person and remotely. For in-person teams, often working with skeleton crews, that meant the rest of the department had to completely restructure the ways they completed their day-to-day work remotely. ESH then had to come together to find ways for sensitive information to stay secure while also developing equipment inspection processes that could be performed remotely to limit in-person exposure to other team members. Additionally, ESH departments ensured remote employees were still happy and productive in their new work environments.
Work from home is possible.
ESH departments have had to adapt to working from home while structuring remote working systems that still allow for collaboration and productivity. Company policies have been adjusted to accommodate different work environments, often with an emphasis on employee wellness for proper ergonomics, mental and physical health, working alone and more. ESH professionals spent hours meeting, researching and rewriting manuals, developing remote working tips to encourage productivity and employee communication while trying to limit burnout in a dual office and living space. A return to work is likely for many departments, but ESH needs to find a balance in policies that allow more flexible work options for employees who may still wish to work remotely now that they know it is a viable option.
Emergency response plans are updated.
After the mad dash to understand the logistics of a global pandemic, most ESH departments now have emergency response plans in place with backlogs of supplies at the ready. Many professionals agree that they had loose pandemic response plans pre-COVID-19, but they have been reworked and updated based on experiences of the past year. These timely developments show the seamless collaboration and the vast competency of ESH professionals, as they faced a situation like never before. Companies should now have plans in place—along with teams designated to make changes—to allow for a more seamless transition to face other obstacles that may appear in the future.
Steve Roberge is the vice president of EHS and facilities at Axcelis Technologies. He has more than 20 years of EHS leadership experience in the semiconductor, chemical and consulting industries and is the past president of the Semiconductor Environmental Safety and Health Association (SESHA).