Return-to-Work Lessons from Major League Baseball

This post first appeared on Risk Management Magazine. Read the original article.

Over the summer, professional sports in the United States
resumed under adjusted conditions amid the ongoing pandemic. This resumption
has presented the same operational challenges that many other industries have
faced when trying get back to business while COVID-19 rages on. This was
particularly evident with Major League Baseball (MLB), which experienced
significant issues, despite having extensive resources unavailable to most
other enterprises.

Nearly four months later than originally scheduled and after
protracted negotiations and planning about how to conduct the season while
keeping athletes and staff safe, the league decided on an abbreviated season of
60 games per team (from 162), without fans in attendance. But even with the
delayed start on July 23, baseball faced many of the same challenges as other
reopening organizations, including limited access to personal protective
equipment and delayed testing results.

Some leagues like the National Basketball Association (NBA)
and the National Hockey League (NHL) adopted a “bubble” approach to conduct
games while limiting virus spread. This involved isolating players and staff,
playing all games in centralized facilities, and prohibiting most travel or
other potential exposure. MLB did not, instead letting players and staff go
about their daily lives and travel relatively freely.

Ultimately, the effects of a non-bubble approach presented
the greatest challenge to the season. Early on, two teams suffered major
outbreaks, including 21 players and coaches on the Miami Marlins and 13 members
of the St. Louis Cardinals organization. This outbreak alone caused the
postponement of 30 games, and many called for the season to end almost as soon
as it had begun. The season ultimately continued, but other players and staff
on the Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets, Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants
tested positive in subsequent weeks. By mid-September, the league had postponed
a total of 43 games across the league due to coronavirus cases.

If COVID-19 can hinder professional baseball’s modified
return, how can smaller businesses, educational institutions and other
organizations hope to safely return to normal operations? Organizations must
meticulously plan, rigorously enforce and continuously reevaluate their
strategies throughout this pandemic.

Based on baseball’s return, here are some key lessons for
companies to strengthen their emergency response strategies and adjust
operations during the pandemic:

Be Ready for Anything

To safely resume operations, it is critical to be prepared
for the unexpected. Major League Baseball put a lot of thought and planning
into how it could start the season and protect the health and safety of players
and staff, going so far as to make a wide range of changes in how the game is
traditionally played. The league also issued new guidelines for hand-washing,
clubhouse and dugout activities, social distancing, and checking temperatures
and symptoms. Officials even dug into the details, issuing safety directives
regarding time-honored baseball habits: Players could no longer spit tobacco or
sunflower seeds, pitchers could not lick their fingers before throwing a pitch,
and celebrating a walk-off home run by mobbing the hitter at home plate was

Other organizations can take a cue from MLB by first
considering every facet of health and safety and creating workflows and
protocols that address all aspects of operations. That likely means additions
to the employee operations manual or the emergency response plan. MLB’s
COVID-19 protocol manual is more than 100 pages long and yours could be even
more extensive.

Before starting the season, MLB considered many different
angles and potential incidents to protect the health and safety of players and
staff, and to maintain the continuity of the game. Similarly, businesses should
carefully develop protocols and processes that can be integrated into emergency
plans to protect employees, customers and business partners, while ensuring
business continuity. Key steps in this process include:

  • Conducting a risk assessment to identify
    potential emergency threats
  • Identifying key personnel who will be involved
    in incident response
  • Identifying stakeholders and local and state
    agencies that will be involved
  • Creating specific plans, procedures and
    protocols for pandemic response
  • Establishing an incident command center for
    coordination of response and communications
  • Developing procedures for coordinating critical
    event response across multiple locations
  • Compiling all forms to be used, including
    incident reports and forms for insurance purposes
  • Seeking input on the preparedness plan from all
    community stakeholders, including law enforcement, fire, medical/hospital and
    public health

Preparedness, situational awareness, and an up-to-the-minute
common operating picture are essential to keep people safe, whether returning
to a worksite or a school campus, and during planned events like sports
competitions or unplanned incidents like natural or human-caused disasters.

Like public health and emergency management agencies, many
businesses use critical incident/emergency management platforms, which can help
leadership and key stakeholders take the proper precautions, and monitor
people, activities and incidents. This allows organizations to react faster,
make better decisions on the fly, and respond more effectively to lessen the
likelihood or severity of a crisis. Emergency management technology also allows
organizations to manage logistics, personnel and resources to ensure a
comprehensive common operating picture at any given time and manage them more

Be Flexible

Major League Baseball also took a fairly flexible approach
to resuming operations. As a result of the growing number of coronavirus cases,
the league rescheduled games and was open to, and made, additional changes in
protocols as the season progressed. For example, to make up postponed games,
the league adjusted team schedules mid-season, creating more doubleheaders. In
turn, it also reduced the length of those doubleheader games from nine innings
to seven innings to reduce the physical toll on players playing two games

Other organizations must similarly stay flexible enough to
turn on a dime when situations change, and be willing to implement new measures
swiftly. This is much easier when key decision-makers and emergency response
team members are well equipped with the same information and data to better
communicate and collaborate, and have the ability to adapt the system as necessary.

An emergency management technology platform can help
navigate the complexities of returning to work. These should include workflows
tailored to the organization and specific to managing coronavirus cases,
including contact tracing and case management functionality. The platform
should also be scalable and customizable, and be able to help effectively
monitor individuals, facility statuses, PPE supplies, task assignments, and
ongoing processes and procedures.

The pandemic has served up many curve balls, and it is
unclear how the baseball season—or any other sports seasons, for that
matter—will ultimately progress. Without question, operations for baseball and
business alike will be different from any we have yet seen. As the country
continues to confront COVID-19, focusing on preparedness and flexibility will
give all organizations a better chance of success.

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