„If in doubt: people first!”

On the occasion of the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, Chief Human Resources Officer Oliver Burkhard talks to Felicia Mutterer about we care 2020, occupational safety and corona at thyssenkrupp and a possible return to normality.

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Felicia Mutterer: It was just the World Day for Health and Safety at Work – usually a day on which thyssenkrupp starts with hands-on activities and team events for employees. But this year everything is different. We must and want to talk about that. Welcome to Audiogram Number 7. I am Felicia Mutterer and I am delighted to have Chief Human Resources Officer Oliver Burkhard as my competent interview partner. Welcome you, Mr Burkhard.

Oliver Burkhard: Hello, Ms Mutterer.

Felicia Mutterer: The corona pandemic continues to dominate large parts of our lives, including yours and thyssenkrupp's. How are things going?

Oliver Burkhard: Of course things have to keep going these days. We have already published the slogan very early on, I believe: Protect the health of our employees and the businesses. And we have been doing that for several weeks now. I think it has been widely acknowledged that we are taking this seriously. We all know that this is something that will naturally continue to challenge us for some time to come. And that is where the fine day for safety and health at work, which was introduced by the International Labour Organisation, and which we celebrate here every year, must take place differently.

Felicia Mutterer: In what way does this, as you call it, we care Day take place?

Oliver Burkhard: We don't have the usual activities, which would normally consist of gathering the employees together. We can't do that today. We have to stick to the rules of distance and that makes it more difficult. But of course we can do a lot more than that, namely digitally, virtually. We have invited all employees to think about how we can make a contribution together, even if we are far apart. I see a lot of action in the new media today, whether it's LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, the tk community is very active and is raising awareness of occupational safety and health on one of its 365 days.

Felicia Mutterer: How do you see this in relation to the fact that health is of course a big issue, but everything is again overshadowed by Corona?

Oliver Burkhard: Exactly, you are addressing a topic that moves us all very much, especially in the last few days. We have two thyssenkrupp employees, active employees, who passed away due to Covid-19. One case in Great Britain, and one case here in Germany. These were people with whom we have been working over the past months, in some cases years. That means that we as a company are naturally not free of this, like every other part of society, and that this comes very close to us, which is why we do what I believe is necessary in these times: We follow the recommendations of the experts. I think that is better than declaring oneself an expert, so to speak. Of course we know health and safety at work, but Corona protection is an issue that is a completely new challenge for all of us. And we are trying to implement it technically, we are trying to implement it organizationally, and if there is no other way, we are also doing it personally, in other words: nose-mouth masks, distance and hygiene rules. We take this very seriously and call on all employees to comply with these rules.

Felicia Mutterer: Exactly, and then also with digital help, with the digital participation activities, for example on we.connect.

Oliver Burkhard: Exactly, in our internal social media like we.connect as well as in the external ones. It is nice to see, in this respect: The topic of Corona, even if it is a terrible topic, can also be associated with something positive, namely that the health of our employees is our top priority. And this can be made very clear on a day like this through a variety of different activities.

Felicia Mutterer: What do you actually have to refresh in terms of health and occupational safety?

Oliver Burkhard: We always have the topic of occupational safety in our plants, and I believe that it depends very much on the culture, on the occupational safety culture. It is created in everyday work, or it is destroyed there. And it is based on a set of rules that is different for an elevator mechanic than for someone who works here at headquarters. But in the end it is important that we stick to these rules, that we don't drop our good intentions bit by bit every day – because a world day won't help in that case – and that we remember to act safely every day. It's a bit like brushing your teeth, it has to become second nature, without brushing less often or less thoroughly over the years. Our accident rate is only a third of what it used to be when we started the projects here together. I am thinking, for example, of our "we check" campaign. Or we issued a "we stop" card - every employee has the right to stop work immediately if he or she is working in an unsafe environment and to call in his or her supervisor to make the environment a safe one again. These were not one-off activities, but rather - in addition to all other guidelines - important things.

Felicia Mutterer: Now, I have to come back to this Corona topic: At the moment, the situation in Germany and Austria is that the measures are being relaxed. In Germany, for example, shops are allowed to reopen under certain conditions, schools likewise, and in Austria people are even allowed to go out on the town again starting in May. Now it all looks a bit as if this risk has already been minimized, we're out of the woods, and thyssenkrupp can soon return to total normality.

Oliver Burkhard: I am more skeptical, I must say. Of course I understand the current discussions: How much relaxation can this virus tolerate, and how much restraint must I show in order to prevent it from getting worse. I believe that we would still be well advised - despite all the economic and political pressures that may exist - to rely on the advice of the experts. And they are somewhat more cautious in this respect.

Now the living conditions of the employees probably vary greatly, but I do think that we must be very careful. And that is also the line we give out for tk. We currently have 35,000 people in home office and it works quite well. The question is: What won't work if we continue to work from home? And the answer is usually: Nah, that actually works. And then I say, let's remain cautious before we push ahead with the easing measures too soon, which then lead to a second wave. In my life I have not actually always been a very cautious person, but I am attentive. And I believe that this virus still needs this attention and that we as a company need to react accordingly.

Felicia Mutterer: How do you make decisions? So, you don't just look at the politicians, but how do you do it internally?

Oliver Burkhard: Internally, we have a call every morning with executives who are directly involved with this topic, every other day with our business. We take a very close look at how things are developing in the individual countries, which differs a lot. We adapt locally, but make general recommendations. Be it the wearing of masks, be it how we actually deal with the distance regulations in the workplace. What if we cannot comply with them? How do we then protect our employees. Well, it's a very varied answer, but it always has a basic theme that we stick to: We want to protect our employees. We have to protect our business. We have to balance that. And if in doubt, we always put people first.

Felicia Mutterer: What is the most important thing now in trying to take steps towards normality with the necessary sense of proportion?

Oliver Burkhard: First of all: Compliance with the various measures for protection against corona, as we have already communicated in recent weeks, remains important. Proper coughing and sneezing, keeping your distance, avoiding shaking hands. The second thing is: We will make sure that wherever we cannot maintain the distance, we will install appropriate protective measures - Plexiglas walls between two workplaces, for example. In organisational terms, we will try to introduce three shifts instead of one, so to speak, to equalize the number of employees so that not too many are in one place and can infect each other. And where necessary, we will also issue masks that are also suitable for personal protection. Nobody has to feel bad about coming to tk and working there in these times. We take care of each other - together, I believe. This includes precautions on the part of the company as well as responsible action by each individual person who works for us.

Felicia Mutterer: "Safety first" is the motto. Thank you, Oliver Burkhard, thyssenkrupp CHRO, for the information. That was audiogram number seven. Take care and stay healthy. Hear you again. Bye-bye.