Guest blog by Julie Luff, Lead Occupational Health Practitioner, Flintshire County Council
It seems so long ago now back in February 2020 when all service heads within my Local Authority (LA) were called by the Chief Executive (CE) to an emergency planning meeting. We were appraised of the latest COVID-19 pandemic situation and asked to go away and prepare our services for a situation of which we had no prior experience, or knowledge of what was about to come. The CE’s parting words were: "This is going to make us all realise what’s important." Those words have stayed with me throughout this pandemic.
As I walked back to my team I must say I felt emotional in that I honestly didn’t know how to prepare for a situation in which no one really knew what pathway the pandemic would take. I decided at that point to be honest and share my feelings, to let the team know that it was okay to feel anxious, that we would support each other as a team, that we would do the best we could at the time with what we knew, and we would be able to change our course as and when necessary.
I gathered my team and then reviewed all of our activities. Face to face consultations would be replaced by telephone consultations; risk assessments with regard to home working preparedness would be undertaken; physical distancing measures would be implemented.
The biggest changes were within our Health Surveillance (HS) process. Face to face assessments replaced by paper questionnaire screening, and hierarchal process with regard to telephone assessments implemented. I worked with our Health and Safety (H&S) colleagues in order to take the opportunity to strengthen processes such as skin and respiratory HS. I requested that they work with managers in order to review Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH risk assessments) and confirm that all employees had been entered correctly into the HS programme.
An enhanced skin and respiratory assessment has been produced, and I am currently reviewing with our Occupational Health Physician (OHP) as to whether the need to return to spirometry is required at all going forward. Hand Arm Vibration (HAVS) assessment has been reviewed by paper screen and telephone assessment and without doubt the skill of our clinical history and assessment has improved. This has been acknowledged by our OHP.
The manager referral system has changed; our managers have been inundated with queries from employees who have been anxious with regard to their wellbeing at work - the first point of call for everyone was us in occupational health. Same for us all I suppose.
In order that we could support this anxiety both in regard to managers and employees in a timely fashion we accepted email referrals and provided email responses, we produced a safe system of communication and used ALAMA assessment to support clinical judgement and responses. We supported all employees with Web Ex sessions on topics such as resilience, managing anxiety, working from home advice, stress awareness and mindfulness. The LA has such a diverse workforce: social care, schools, street scene (our refuse service, parks and gardens, highways), schools, housing service, benefits services, all of whom needed support.
Our Flu campaign was expanded to include all key workers and rather than offer the service in our department, we attended schools and workplaces to deliver on site vaccination, vaccinating over 3,000 employees. We have pre-ordered the same for 2021 in readiness for a similar programme this year.
Early on in the pandemic our social care workers were required to have antigen testing. We supported this cohort of employees by managing the programme, chasing results and ensuring a managed system.
Our work has changed beyond all recognition. At our regular meetings we talk of having a sense of 'winging it' so to speak, such has been the amount of change that we have been through; however we certainly haven’t winged it - we have responded professionally and swiftly by applying best practice to all that we have done.
As a team we are stronger, and I am proud of each and every one of my staff. We have certainly realised what is important, and we have in my opinion improved our service provision. We are still not out of the pandemic… Will we ever be as we once used to be? Does it matter? I don’t think so. My team will respond and adapt together to whatever is thrown at us, whatever it may be.