Charting a Path to Worksite Safety, With or Without the OSHA ETS

 As expected, OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring employers with 100 or more employees to require employees working onsite to be COVID-19 vaccinated or tested regularly has been challenged in the courts. While we recommend continuing compliance efforts, employers need to ask themselves how they will proceed with worksite safety efforts if the ETS falls. In an ongoing Mercer survey, about a third of the approximately 350 employers responding as of Nov. 17 already require at least some employees to be vaccinated.

Clearly, there can be a cost to requiring vaccinations. About a third of the respondents that have implemented a vaccine requirement have seen at least some increased turnover as a result, although for most it has not exceeded 5%. It is also clear that, health risks aside, not requiring vaccinations can have a cost as well: About a third of respondents that do not require vaccinations say that some employees have refused to return to their worksites specifically due to safety concerns. In a survey of 2,000 US workers conducted this summer, about two-thirds said they would prefer their employers to require vaccinations.

All of this leaves many employers feeling caught between a rock and a hard place. The survey asked about employers’ biggest concerns with regard to complying with the OSHA requirements in the timeframe allowed. “Employee resistance to mandatory vaccination and/or testing” was at the top of the list, with 41% “very concerned” and 36% “concerned”. Of course, the level of resistance will vary from one organization to the next. The good news is that there is evidence that resistance can be eased or at least managed, even where it’s strongest.

Tactics to address and minimize employee resistance

What we’ve learned from employers that have already been through the process of implementing COVID vaccination requirements is that communication is critical. During a Mercer webcast, Houston Methodist, a hospital system with 27,000 employees, shared their experience as one of the first employers to implement a vaccine requirement for all employees. Ultimately, they lost only 150 employees over the mandate. Based on what worked well for them, these five tips could ease pain points you may be anticipating:

  1. Be transparent about your policy – starting with leaders. Ensure that all leaders understand the policy and provide consistent messaging. Document messages in FAQs, but bring leaders together “live” to talk through situations so that everyone has exposure to the questions you’re hearing and how best to answer them.
  2. Create a plan and stick to the plan.  For example, if you communicate a deadline for an activity – for example, providing vaccination status or receiving a first shot -- stick to the deadline. If you make an exception for some, others may question the process or ask for exceptions for themselves.
  3. Be consistent in reviewing exemptions. While it may take more time, ensure that all exemptions go through the same review process with the same set of reviewers. Employees talk and you want to make sure that their situations are handled consistently.
  4. Listen to all your employees; not just the most vocal. Remember, the majority of employees nationwide want worksite vaccination requirements. It is important to know what your employees want.
  5. Respect individual choice. Avoid making vaccination a question of right or wrong. A more respectful approach emphasizes that everyone can choose whether to get the vaccine, but your organization requires its workers to be vaccinated.

One final note: In planning to comply with the OSHA requirements, about 40% of employers responding to our ongoing survey said they intend to allow regular testing and masking as an alternative to vaccination. While providing this option may help prevent turnover, it does leave employers with the administrative burden of managing the testing process – which, as shown above, was #2 on survey respondents’ list of concerns for complying with the OSHA requirement. Whatever you decide, having a thoughtful plan with a strong focus on communication is the key to making your worksite safety strategy work for your company, employees and customers.

Beth Umland
by Beth Umland

Director of Research, Health, Mercer

Maura Cawley
by Maura Cawley

Sub-market Segment Leader

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