Exposed wiring. Hazardous materials. Slippery walkways. Unsanitary work spaces. As long as there have been workplaces, there have been unsafe working conditions for employees, which organizations must address in order to keep employees safe and engaged in their work — or at the very least, to comply with safety regulations.
But as offices and indoor work spaces open back up for the first time in over a year, organizations face another category of workplace safety: COVID safety precautions and protocols, including masking or vaccine mandates, social distancing requirements, new air filtration systems, high cleaning frequency, and more.
Organizations should always be making the effort to provide a safe and healthy work environment, so that employees can stay engaged, productive, and thriving. But as employees return to indoor work spaces, will they feel safe enough? Or are employees concerned about the safety measures in place, and the pressure to return in general?
We wanted to know more about employees’ experiences with workplace safety issues, how workplaces are implementing COVID safety precautions, and how eager or hesitant employees feel about returning to their indoor work spaces.
On June 21, 2021, we surveyed 889 Americans who are employed full time. The survey was conducted online via PollFish.com using organic sampling through Random Device Engagement (RDE).
Here are some of our findings about unsafe working conditions, COVID safety measures, and how employees are feeling about returning to in-person work spaces:
52% have experienced unsafe working conditions. The biggest issues our respondents have faced are exposed wiring, slippery walkways, and unmarked exits.
41% have left an organization because of unsafe conditions. While 87% of respondents believe their workplace cares about their safety, many have left workplaces due to unresolved issues.
56% have reported unsafe working conditions. Those who didn’t report didn’t think it was a big enough issue to raise, or it wasn’t their place to report it. Only 55% of reported issues were fully resolved.
58% feel very comfortable returning to an indoor work space. Those who don’t feel comfortable returning indoors cite a lack of COVID safety measures in place, or that they feel their workplace is reopening too quickly.
46% believe they’re being forced to return in person. Additionally, 45% fear retaliation in the form of shaming, loss of job duties, and more if they don’t return in person.
20% don’t feel comfortable voicing COVID safety concerns. They don’t feel comfortable speaking up because they don’t think anything will be done about it, they won’t be believed, or they fear retaliation if they do say something.
74% are more willing to report issues through an anonymous method. If organizations want to hear true concerns from their employees, they need to offer anonymous reporting channels.
Part 1: Profile of Who We Surveyed
Part 2: Addressing Workplace Safety
Part 3: Reporting Unsafe Working Conditions
Part 4: Returning to the Office Post-COVID
Part 5: Voicing Concerns About COVID
We surveyed 889 Americans who work full-time (62% hourly, 38% salaried).
57.4% are male, and 42.6% are female.
The majority (40.3%) fall between the ages of 35 and 44. 21.6% are between the ages of 25 and 34, and 12.7% are under the age of 24. 14.7% are between the ages of 45 and 54, and 10.7% are over the age of 54.
23.3% work for a small business of 1 to 100 employees; 45% work for a medium-sized business of 100 to 999 employees; 31.7% work for a large business of 1000 or more employees.
The majority (21.7%) work in the IT/computer software sector, 13.3% work in healthcare, 8.4% work in financial services or insurance, and 8% work in educational services. The remainder fell throughout a variety of other sectors.
17.3% are entry-level employees, 41.8% are mid-level employees, and 35.7% are senior-level employees (5.2% identify their role as “Other”).
Finally, in terms of how long they’ve been at their current company, 9.3% have been there for less than 6 months, 14.2% have been there between 6 months and one year, 38.8% have been there between one and five years, and 37.7% have been there for five or more years.
Every employee should be able to work in an environment that is safe, and where they can perform their job duties without worrying about harm or danger. Unfortunately, not all workplaces are safe and healthy for employees.
We wanted to understand the extent to which employees have experienced unsafe working conditions. This could include exposed wires, unmarked exits, slippery walkways, unenforced COVID precautions, or anything else that might prove a hazard. 52.3% of our respondents across business sizes and sectors have experienced some kind of unsafe work environment.
If they’ve encountered unsafe working conditions, which issues or concerns specifically did they experience? We asked them to choose all that apply:
When issues arise around unsafe working conditions, do organizations address them? We found that nearly two-thirds do, with 62.4% reporting that their workplace addresses issues immediately. 22.3% replied that their workplace may not address the issues immediately, but they do address them eventually. 9.1% report that they haven’t seen their workplace address safety issues, and 6.2% report that they are unaware if their workplace addresses issues.
The majority of the respondents who reported that issues were addressed immediately or eventually work in IT/computer software. The majority of those who reported that they haven’t seen their workplace address issues work in healthcare, and the majority of those who reported that they are unaware if their workplace addresses issues work in education. Senior-level are more likely to report that issues are taken care of immediately, and those who work in large businesses are more likely to report that they are unaware that their workplace addresses issues.
Experiencing unsafe working conditions is not uncommon, as over half of our respondents across sectors and company sizes have experienced issues that include exposed wiring, hazardous materials, high noise levels, and more. Our respondents also experience COVID safety concerns that include coworkers or customers not wearing masks, social distancing not being enforced, and lack of COVID-safe air systems.
While most workplaces are addressing these issues, many are not: either there’s a delay in fixing them, or they don’t address them at all. This creates not just unsafe working environments for employees, but impacts trust, engagement, and morale when employees don’t see anything done about these issues.
Unsafe working conditions shouldn’t remain unaddressed. Yet they do go unreported, and workers are often hesitant to report the issues they see around them. We wanted to know more about these situations: What have workers done in the face of unaddressed unsafe working conditions, and where do workers stand on reporting those issues that they see?
Do workers believe that their workplace cares about their safety and wellbeing? The majority were positive, with 86.5% replying that they do believe their workplaces care about their safety. However, 13.5% replied that no, they do not believe their workplace cares.
Those most likely to say that their workplaces care about their safety work in IT/computer software, healthcare, and financial services, whereas those who don’t believe their workplaces care about their safety work in education, also in healthcare, and in the federal government. Senior-level employees were also more likely to say their workplace cares about their safety (91.5%) than entry-level employees (77.9%)
Next, we wanted to know if respondents had ever left a position due to unsafe working conditions and concern for their safety. 40.9% replied that they had indeed left a job due to unsafe working conditions that were not addressed. However, 25.1% said that even though unsafe working conditions were not addressed, they still stayed. 34% reported they stayed because unsafe working conditions were addressed, or there weren’t any issues in their organization.
Of male respondents, 49.2% say they have left a previous workplace because of unsafe working conditions, while 26.1% have not even though issues were not addressed, and 24.7% report not being in a place that had issues, or that they were resolved. However, of our female respondents, only 29.8% say they have left a previous workplace because of unsafe working conditions, while 23.8% have not even though issues were not addressed, and 46.4% report not being in a place that had issues, or that they were resolved.
Have our respondents reported unsafe working conditions in the past? 56.2% replied that they have reported unsafe working conditions, while 43.8% replied that they have not.
If they did not report, we wanted to know why, and they responded:
The top two were the same across breakdowns (male/female, entry/senior). Retaliation or thinking they wouldn’t be believed seems a low motivator, when you consider that workplaces are often receptive to reports of unsafe working conditions. What’s striking is that respondents didn’t report because they didn’t think it was that big of a deal (the top three safety issues we saw above were electrical hazards, slippery hallways or unshoveled walkways, and unmarked or blocked exits), or they shrugged it off as someone else’s responsibility. This could signal a lack of articulating what unsafe working conditions are, and a lack of urgency in getting them reported.
If they did report unsafe working conditions in the past, what was the result of them doing so? According to our respondents:
In looking at the breakdowns, 59.4% of male respondents saw their reported issue fully resolved and 24.7% partially resolved, compared to 48.6% of female respondents who saw their reported issue fully resolved and 23.8% who saw their issue partially resolved.
Similarly, 61.8% of senior-level employees saw their reported issue fully resolved and 24% partially resolved, compared to 52.6% of entry-level employees who saw their reported issue fully resolved and 23.4% who saw their issue partially resolved.
While our respondents are pretty positive about their current workplaces caring about their safety, many also won’t hesitate to leave a workplace if they see unsafe working conditions not being addressed.
However, only half of our respondents have reported unsafe working conditions, while those who didn’t report cited two major reasons for not doing so: They weren’t sure if the issue they saw was enough of an issue to report, or they assumed someone else would report it. These reasonings signal a kind of passivity when it comes to workplace safety or a lack of messaging that safety is everyone’s responsibility (someone else will report it), or it signals a lack of clarity on what workplace safety issues are or shows that the message from leadership is that they don’t want to be bothered with the small issues (I didn’t know if it was a big enough deal to report).
Additionally, only about half of reported workplace safety issues were fully resolved, which means that companies have work to do in focusing on addressing and fixing safety issues with urgency. There’s also an imbalance in who is getting their issues resolved: male and senior-level employees are seeing higher resolution rates than female and entry-level employees.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised new issues when it comes to workplace safety, health, and wellness, as workplaces now need to put measures in place to keep their staff safe once employees begin returning to the office. But do employees feel safe enough with the protocols being put into place? Or are there concerns and hesitancy around a return to the office?
First, we wanted to know what the situation of our respondents would be once their workplaces reopened. 74% replied that they either would be returning to an indoor office or work space, or have already returned to an indoor work space. 18.6% replied that they would be working remotely or working from home, and would not return to an indoor office or work space. 7.4% work in an outdoor environment which safety precautions would not affect them as much.
Thinking in terms of health and safety when it comes to COVID protocols, how comfortable do our respondents feel returning to an indoor office or work space? Our respondents skewed feeling more comfortable. The majority of our respondents (57.9%) feel very comfortable returning to an indoor work space, while an additional 27.5% feel somewhat comfortable. 9.4% felt neither comfortable or uncomfortable. Only 3.8% felt somewhat uncomfortable, and 1.4% felt very uncomfortable doing so.
There was a split in our male and female respondents in terms of comfort level: 64.6% of our male respondents felt very comfortable returning to an indoor workplace, whereas 48.3% of female respondents felt very comfortable doing so. This split may not wholly be due to comfort levels with safety protocols, but could reflect traditional gendered approaches to work: Male respondents may feel more comfortable returning because that’s their role, whereas female respondents may feel less comfortable returning because they still need to be present for kids doing school remotely at home.
For those who felt uncomfortable returning to work, we wanted to know why. Top answers were:
We wanted to know how offices are doing in terms of putting COVID safety measures and precautions in place for their workers. 86.3% replied that they believe their office will put in the steps necessary to keep them safe. 7.3% replied that they don’t believe their workplace will put in the necessary safety precautions. 6.4% replied that their office said they would put in the necessary precautions, but they are not aware of them.
As they reopen, have workplaces communicated a COVID safety plan to their employees? 90.7% replied that they were provided with a COVID safety plan by their employer. 9.3% replied that they were not.
The majority of those who replied “No” work in retail and education.
Despite feeling comfortable returning, we wanted to know how many of our respondents felt that they were being forced back into the office. The majority of our respondents (46.2%) replied that yes, they did feel they were being forced to go back into the office. 35.6% replied that they did not feel like they were being forced to go back. The remainder reported that they either didn’t have the option to stay remote, or don’t need to return to an office.
56.3% of male respondents reported feeling that they’re being forced to return to the office, whereas only 31.7% of female respondents felt they were being forced to return. Entry-level employees (55.8%) and senior-level employees (55.1%) had nearly even feelings about feeling forced to return.
Considering that 85.4% of respondents reported above that they feel both very comfortable and somewhat comfortable returning to work, 46.2% saying they believe they’re being forced to go back to work means that they have reasons other than safety in mind for not wanting to return. This could be wanting to stay remote but not being allowed to, wanting a hybrid or work from home set-up but not getting it, or other reasons for feeling that they’re prematurely returning to work without a say in the matter.
For those who have the option of staying remote or going back to the office, we wanted to know how free they are in making that choice, or do they fear repercussions if they do not go back to the workplace? 45.3% reported that they do fear repercussions if they don’t return in person, and that if they stay remote they will be unfairly treated, looked down upon, or kept out of business decisions. 29.5% felt that no, their workplace has been inclusive of remote workers and has been positive about finding a solution. The remainder reported that they either didn’t have the option to stay remote, or don’t need to return to an office.
Additionally, male respondents (55.4%) fear retaliation more than female respondents do (31.6%). Senior-level (59.7%) respondents fear retaliation more than entry-level respondents do (46.4%).
While three-quarters of our respondents will be returning to an indoor workplace, and while 58% report that they’re “very comfortable” in doing so, there are still some red flags around the move back to the office. The top two reasons workers didn’t feel comfortable returning centered around their workplace not being prepared: Respondents either didn’t feel there were enough COVID safety measures in place, or they felt that their workplace was opening too quickly, and placing profit before safety. This shows that many employees are not at the same risk tolerance level or time table as their employer.
We also found that nearly half of respondents feel that they’re being forced to return in person. Some of it may be due to safety concerns, but it could also be due to employers not giving options to continue to work remotely, or offering hybrid options when employees are asking for it. What’s worse is that nearly half our respondents believe that if they don’t return in person they’ll face some kind of repercussions or retaliation for it — loss of job duties, not being considered a “team player” — that will directly impact their productivity, their engagement, and even their career growth.
When it comes to COVID precautions, not everyone has the same level of risk they’re willing to take, and each has their own reasons for their precautions. However, when it comes to reopening workplaces, employers are trying to find a level of precautions that fits everyone, which some employees may be comfortable with, while others aren’t. For those who have concerns about their workplace’s COVID safety measures, do they feel comfortable voicing them?
For those who have concerns about reentering their workplace and the COVID precautions — or lack thereof — in place in the office, do they feel comfortable bringing up their concerns to a manager or to HR? 79.6% replied that they do feel comfortable voicing their concerns. However, 20.4% replied that they do not feel comfortable doing that.
Male respondents were more likely to feel more comfortable voicing their concerns (82.9%) than female respondents (75.2%). Additionally, senior-level respondents were likely to feel more comfortable voicing their concerns (89%) than entry-level respondents (76.6%). The majority of respondents who reported not feeling comfortable voicing their opinions work in healthcare and education, and mostly work at large companies.
For those who do not feel comfortable voicing their concerns about COVID safety, we wanted to know why. Here are the top reasons:
In comparing this list to the one above about reasons respondents didn’t report issues of unsafe working conditions, we see two different top answers. Above, the reasons for not reporting unsafe working conditions were because respondents didn’t know if the issue was big enough to flag, or thought someone else would flag it.
Here, however, the top two reasons for not reporting are feeling it wouldn’t be addressed or that their concern wouldn’t be believed, and a fear of retaliation for reporting. This means that respondents don’t see voicing concerns about COVID safety in the same way as other safety issues. Reporting issues like social distancing, sanitization, and masking brings a fear of being shamed, told they’re not a team player, or losing job duties, or a fear that their concerns will be brushed aside.
For female respondents and entry-level respondents, fear of retaliation was their number one reason for not reporting. Male respondents didn’t report because they believe nothing would be don’t about it, and senior-level respondents didn’t report because they felt it wasn’t their place to do so.
If our respondents had a truly anonymous way to report unsafe working conditions, would they be more inclined to do so? 73.6% of our respondents said yes, they would be more likely to report issues through an anonymous channel. 10.2% replied that they wouldn’t because they still wouldn’t report the issue for other reasons. 8% replied that they wouldn’t because they wouldn’t believe the channel to be truly anonymous. 8.2% said no, because they would use another way to report.
While male respondents (74.5%) were more willing than female respondents (72.3%) to say they’d be more inclined to report anonymously, female respondents replied that they would be less inclined to report anonymously (10.3%) than male respondents (6.3%) because they believe that the channel still wouldn’t be anonymous (perhaps due to past experiences of being told channels were anonymous when they weren’t).
In similar fashion, senior-level employees (77.3%) were more willing than entry-level employees (69.5%) to report anonymously, yet entry-level employees were less inclined to report anonymously (10.4%) than senior-level employees (6.6%) because they believe that the method still wouldn’t be anonymous.
Keeping safe during this deadly pandemic has been everyone’s priority this past year. With a work world that has gone remote, the big question would be what reopening would look like, and how employees would get back into the office. Would they be safe? Would they feel comfortable doing so?
As it turns out, there are employees who do not feel comfortable doing so, yet who also do not feel comfortable voicing their concerns about it. Unlike above, where a lack of reporting unsafe working conditions was due to not thinking the issue a big deal, or thinking someone else would do it, not reporting concerns about COVID precautions in the workplace takes a more personal tone: Respondents are afraid to speak up because they don’t think their concerns will be heard or acted upon, or they’re afraid of retaliation. Considering that we also found that respondents fear retaliation if they don’t return to their workplace in person, it appears that some organizations are creating some very difficult, pressured situations for their employees who fear for their safety, but don’t feel they have a say in the matter.
However, respondents say that they are much more inclined to report their concerns via anonymous channels — but workplaces need to be willing to listen.
As the world slowly emerges from the pandemic, and as workplaces and offices transition back to in-person operations, there are new workplace safety issues to consider. While organizations have always needed to address unsafe working conditions like exposed wiring, outdated equipment, noise levels, and congestion, organizations in 2021 also need to make sure they’re addressing COVID safety concerns like mask wearing, social distancing, putting new air filtration systems in place, and more.
But leadership needs to understand that while something like reporting exposed wiring might be a black-and-white issue for employees to report — of course you would report exposed wiring — concerns around personal health and safety in regards to new COVID safety measures, or lack thereof, is more grayscale and nuanced. Unfortunately, we’ve found that many workers don’t feel safe, and don’t believe there’s anything they can do about it.
Organizations need to not only take measures that will make everyone feel safe once back in the office, but recognize any undue pressure or expectations they’re forcing on their employees, and to listen to and be receptive to their fears and hesitations in returning to the workplace. Flexibility, resiliency, empathy, and understanding will be key characteristics for organizations who want to make a successful transition back to the office in 2021.