top of page

Enabling safe work in a COVID-19 World

Where there is Capacity & Capability then Safety comes naturally

Hazards are a part of life and life goes on. What happens when hazards cannot be eliminated but life goes on and so does the need to run a business? You control them of course. When talking about controlling risk, people think of restrictions. Risk management is not and should never be about restrictions. I guess that's a funny thing to say in this day and age because as I sit here typing this, the World over, people are restricted. When the World went into lockdown a few weeks ago few would argue that there was simply no plan of how to work safely in a COVID-19 world of work. The solution was to go into lockdown and buy time. New Zealand declared a state of emergency on the 25th of March 2020 and went into lockdown. People were directed to go home and stay home. In her public address, PM Jacinda Ardern asked New Zealanders to be kind to one another and to rally against COVID-19. Working from home brings its own set of hazards but what if we have to go out there again?

Then in the last week of April workers started going back to work here in New Zealand. Luckily, as far as we can tell, no business here has ordered workers to drink disinfectant to stay safe. What happened though was a directive by the government that a shift from only essential work to safe work will be taken. An indication of this shift happened a few days earlier when Jacinda said

Think of COVID-19 as a Health & Safety Risk that your business should manage.

Why did New Zealand move down from Alert Level 4, which allowed only essential work to continue, to Alert Level 3, which allowed work which can be done safely? To understand this, we need to first look at why NZ went into AL4 in the first place. A week before lockdown a rumour abounded that the PM will be releasing a statement that the country will go into lockdown. This was refuted and Jacinda Ardern promptly issued a statement on her Facebook profile saying that it was not true. A week later New Zealand went into lockdown due to fears of potential widespread community outbreak. There was no evidence at the time that there would be a widespread outbreak but this was a risk the government could not take. What should be remembered was that at the time, thousands of people rushed back home to avoid being locked out. In the few days that followed, the infection rates started climbing. The possibility was too great and the infection rate was alarmingly high, suggesting that there could be a community outbreak. In fact, there had been confirmed isolated clusters of outbreaks in the community. Most of these cases were linked to overseas travel. Did people self-isolate? That was the question and a risk that the government could not take and policing would have been simply too hard. So New Zealand went into lockdown.

Over the next 5 weeks, New Zealanders would sit daily in front of the telly to listen to the 1 pm Newsbriefs led by Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern. Few would argue that going into lockdown was the right thing to do. It became clear that if the chain of infection wasn't broken then the virus would drown the country in a Virus Tsunami. But that didn't happen and the daily infection rates started going down from a high of 89 positive cases recorded on April 2 to single digits a few weeks later and finally Zero on May 4. Thus the rationale that the likelihood of transmission out there would be very low. This does not mean that businesses could simply reopen and we could rush back to normal. In fact, the same rules as before apply and that is to keep on maintaining physical distancing, observe cough and sneeze etiquette, wash your hands regularly and stay home if sick. In addition, businesses would need to ensure they can work safely whilst maintaining the requirements. Halfway through Alert Level 4, the government started to increasingly talk about contact tracing and this spilt over into the business sector. Restarting the economy is key for the country to get back to something which would resemble normality and at the forefront of this drive was the Construction sector. Towards the last week of Alert Level 4, the industry lead group Construction Health & Safety NZ (CHASNZ), issued industry protocols for working safely and it included a contact tracing requirement for construction sites. In fact, that set of protocols was the first Safe System of Work for COVID-19 developed and widely published and promoted throughout New Zealand. It would also be the first indication of what work would look like in the new ‘normal world’ of COVID-19. The protocols issued by the construction industry no doubt guided many businesses to develop their own protocols.

What is a Safe System of Work (SSoW)?

A system of work is a set of procedures according to which work must be carried out. In New Zealand legislation the primary duty of care of a PCBU requires the provision and maintenance of safe systems of work. What this implies in the act is that work should only be undertaken if it can be done safely, thus, all work should be conducted within the guidance of a Safe System of Work. If work cannot be done safely then it should be eliminated as was done in Alert Level 4 of Lockdown.

How to develop a Safe System of Work

Think of a safe system of work as a system to enable work to be undertaken which gives the team members and the business the capacity and capability for safety. The capacity is in the form of tools and systems to work safely and the capability is in the form of skills and knowledge by all involved. When these two critical elements of safety are provided then safety comes naturally. The added benefit of an SSoW, is that it promotes a safety culture because it embeds safety into the normal daily routine (business practice).

Although this article focusses on COVID-19 as a risk, it must be noted that all applicable risks should be considered in a safe system of work. In the example used for this article, remote work had been included as it is indicated as an additional risk for the group in question.

Assess work tasks/Identify hazards and assess risks

This is the risk assessment component for developing an SSoW by following the 5 step process of risk assessment. It is important that this assessment involves the people who are at risk, i.e, consultation with team members is essential when undertaking the assessment. For our example, we will consider workers on construction sites or people that need to access construction sites with Covid-19 as the hazard.

  • Who? – Who is at risk? In this example, it would refer to the person or people identified who are required to work on or visit construction sites.

  • What? - What is the task and what risk does the task present? In this example, it is the risk of virus transmission. This could be from person to person or when touching a contaminated surface and then touching their face.

  • Where? – In the development of the Safe System of Work, the task needs to be looked at as a whole. This is inclusive of all the possible locations the identified persons (the Who?) may travel to and/or access. The Project Manager, for example, will be at risk for the duration of the task. Not only when on the worksite. The PM will be exposed from when departing home until returning to home.

  • When? – When does the job really need to be executed? Can the job be scheduled to be undertaken when there is less risk, for example, when there are fewer workers on-site?

  • How? - How are the tasks currently undertaken and are the controls adequate to control the risk of exposure?

The risk assessment outlined above may highlight inadequate controls. The next step would be to formulate and define safe methods to execute the tasks.

Define safe methods

For COVID-19, sources of information on safe methods are freely available. Guidance is available on official government and international health organisations’ websites. As mentioned earlier, industry sectors provided guidance documentation for the development of safe systems of work. The main principles are:

  • Are you healthy? - This is a key element of the SSoW. If unwell, stay home. Flowcharts are very effective to aid people to quickly assess if they have signs and symptoms.

  • Bubble - the bubble concept is nothing new for people. What it refers to is a safe bubble, free from COVID-19. Inside the bubble, strict protocols must be adhered to, to ensure the integrity of the safe state of the bubble. When one leaves the bubble or break the rules of the bubble, the risk of contaminations spreads and are referred to as "bursting your bubble". In the workplace, the bubble refers to people who you are working together in the work setting. By following the guidelines of the SSoW whilst operating within a bubble, a state of relative safety can be maintained. In Alert Level 3 many businesses adopted safe work bubbles as part of their protocols for working safely.

  • Those that can work from home are instructed to continue to work from home.

  • Distancing - maintain at least 2-meter distance from others when outside your bubble. This extends to vehicles and public transport.

  • Minimise travel - Keep it local. Local area movement keeps the possibility of widespread outbreak to a minimum, should there be contamination.

  • Personal Hygiene Protocols - one of the most effective methods of controlling the spread of germs is to cough and sneeze into the elbow. By doing this any potential germs remain in the inside of the elbow instead of on the hands from where it is easily transferred to surfaces others may touch. In addition, airborne transmission is eliminated.

  • Wash your hands - Frequent handwashing with soap and water for at least 2 minutes remain one of the most effective methods to minimise transmission.

  • Contact tracing - is very effectively used to identify all the people who had been in contact with a person who shows signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Whilst apps are very effective to track and trace users via Bluetooth technology, a simple register on Microsoft Teams or any of the many online platforms which can be maintained by remote access, makes it contactless and easy to maintain. Contact tracing is an important part of Emergency Procedures.

  • Emergency Procedures - The final element of a Safe System of Work is the Emergency Procedures. What happens when a remote worker experiences an emergency? For Covid-19 these are the actions a business will take to respond to the emergency and to ensure safety and speedy recovery. In terms of fighting COVID-19, contact tracing is the key strategy the Government deploys against the virus.

If controls fails contact tracing helps to Isolate and eliminate the spread
Contact tracing sits in the recovery space of controls


The Safety Improvement Group prefers technological systems to be integrated to support the whole gambet of Health & Safety Management. One such a system is SecurePass™ by HealthSafe™ who, during Alert Level 4, rallied to the cause of we are in in this together by making SecurePass available for free to New Zealand businesses. SecurePass is an innovative worker, visitor and contractor management system making it easy for businesses to manage their Health and Safety due diligence requirements. This system is contactless meaning the user scans into the facility or site via QR code or by means of geofencing technology. All site COVID-19 and other Health and Safety information and requirements are then displayed on the mobile device’s screen. This system is a complete management tool, it even includes a duress function making it unrivalled in the field of the remote worker, visitor and contractor management. By adding COVID-19 Track and Trace and temperature checks to the system, SecurePass is an SSoW essential. Asking Kevin McAfee, Founder of HealthSafe, why he continues to develop these advancements? He plainly stated: "It's truly about protecting people. At Level 4, HealthSafe looked into what Level 3 and 2 would mean for people and their business and we knew we had to replace the kiosk with a QR Code. Understanding the financial pressures New Zealand was facing, I knew the right decision was to support them and so we offered our QR Code sign in/out solution for free. It's always about the people and that won't ever change for me".

It's truly about protecting people - Kevin McAfee

Implementing the Safe System of Work

When a SSoW had been developed it must be introduced and communicated to the workforce for implementation. Jointly, workers and managers must consider the necessity of the work to continue under the current risk profile. If there is no other option, the work is undertaken by aligning it with the SSoW. The best and most effective method of introducing and communicating the SSoW, is by means of webinars, inductions, Tool Box Talks.

For a PDF copy of the below Safe System of Work click here.

Monitoring the system's effectiveness

COVID-19 demonstrated that no standard safety system is safe, the SSoW developed had to be reviewed daily as new guidance were made available and with feedback from the frontline. Therefore, SSoW's need to be continuously monitored, reviewed and adapted as an essential component of risk management.


Think of a Safe System of Work as a system to enable work to be undertaken, which gives the team members and the business, the capacity and capability for safety. That is what health & safety is all about. It is not about restrictions, it is about doing the work that’s required, but in a safe way. Businesses will benefit from investing in good health and safety advice. A good starting place for businesses is to demand quality advice from practitioners who are members of a professional body like IOSH, NZISM, etc. and by doing so you’ll know you are in good hands. A good starting point for practitioners, to showcase credibility in New Zealand, is to gain membership with a professional body and to register on the HASANZ Register, as either a practitioner or professional, depending on qualifications and experience.

To be truly successful in Health and Safety Management, an SSoW must be part of a bigger system, with great leadership who sets the expectations, as was seen in how New Zealand responded to COVID-19.

© Copyright Heinrich Havemann - The Safety Improvement Group.

The Safety Improvement Group Network (SIGNET) is the intellectual property of

Heinrich Havemann