Safety Leads in Going Back
COVID-19 has created a lot of daunting unknowns and endless questions for business owners as they begin to think about what resuming “normal operations” might look like.
When should employees come back to the office? What precautions need to be in place? How do we obtain the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary with the limited supplies? What environmental and health exposures may exist at facilities that have been dormant? How do we assure our customers it’s safe to come back?
What we do know is that the COVID-19 recovery will take some time and a measured and safety-first approach to reopening will be critical for public health. And while there is no single prescription that will fit all, there are a few best practices you can share with your clients to help them prepare for their employees and customers to return on-site.
Have a Plan
It’s important to have a well-thought-out plan that complies with local, state and federal regulations prior to reopening a business. A first step would be to check with local authorities on any new directives applicable to your location and industry. You will need to understand how the directives and requirements will impact the timing for reopening. It is possible the directives may require your business to open at different times or levels of operation. Develop a pandemic preparedness and response plan and a return to office plan. Review OSHA’s “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19.”
Workspace Occupancy Planning
As businesses start to reopen, social distancing protocols may vary based on the industry, workplace setting and culture. Implementation needs may include:
- Mapping out common areas and working spaces to ensure there is enough room for social distancing as required
- Reconfiguring some workspaces or installing physical barriers between spaces
- Directing the flow and direction of foot traffic
- Staggering schedules and breaks
- Continuing to use remote working and virtual meetings even in the workplace.
In addition, providing social distancing protocol training to employees and managers in advance of their return to the workplace is recommended and in some locations may be mandatory. If you have conference rooms, you may need to limit how many people are in the room together. You could post signs to help enforce this new routine or even take out chairs or equipment to coincide with the permitted number of people in smaller spaces to allow for social distancing. Consider how renewed workspace planning will affect emergency evacuation procedures and signage.
HVAC equipment needs to be examined prior to reopening or expanding business operations. Buildings that have been sitting empty pose a potential environmental exposure if there is water sitting in pipes or if air quality or temperature hasn’t been monitored or maintained. Sitting water can create waterborne pathogens including legionnaires’ disease, which causes some of the same symptoms as COVID-19. If humidity isn’t controlled when temperatures and conditions change in empty buildings, it can cause the growth of mold or bacteria. Failure to preemptively assess these situations could cause bodily injuries to employees or the public, cause more financial burdens, or even create a stigma of being an unhealthy building or business. The Building Owners and Management Association offers guidance on considerations for bringing a building back into service in “Getting Back to Work: Preparing Buildings for Re-Entry Amid COVID-19.” The Environmental Protection Agency also offers guidance for HVAC professionals to follow to help protect their building from COVID-19.
Workspace Decontamination and Cleaning
A good cleaning will be needed if your operations have been closed or limited to make sure the virus isn’t alive on workplace surfaces. Check the EPA website for reference on what types of disinfectants and cleaning products are recommended. Think about highly used surfaces such as door handles and light switches, as well as those you don’t usually clean often, such as shelving, pictures, lighting, etc., where droplets could land if someone sneezes. You can also catalog your surfaces and come up with a frequency for cleaning and product types needed.
Personal Protective Equipment Needs
Consider what pre-opening supplies are required prior to the entrance of employees, customers or third parties. You need to ensure you have the right PPE as required and the right cleaning, disinfectant and personal hygiene products available. PPE could include gloves or masks, and it’s important to consider proper usage, training and fit. Note that cloth masks are not considered PPE, as they are to assist the wearer in preventing the spread of the virus and not to protect the wearer from contracting the virus. If these supplies can’t be secured, that will push out the actual time frame of when the business can open, so it’s important to create a course of action ahead of time. For healthcare and public health professionals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers strategies to optimize the supply of PPE and equipment.
The CDC offers a coronavirus self-checker to help you make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care. The federal guidelines indicate that worker temperature checks and health screening questionnaires are sanctioned by the CDC. On March 17, 2020, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued an update to its guidance that now expressly acknowledges that employers may implement temperature screening measures in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The EEOC noted that, “because the CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 and issued attendant precautions, employers may measure employees’ body temperature.” The EEOC cautions employers to “be aware that some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever.”
Once you have a good idea of what activities, supplies and timing are required—and having incorporated the requirements and guidelines provided by recognized authorities—it’s important to draft communications to your employees and stakeholders (customers, contractors, vendors, etc.) on these details and what expectations you have of them. You can outline what activities your business is undertaking prior to reopening, what supplies, protective gear, or cleaning products are available, and the timing for opening. Additionally, if there are new routines or procedures, those should be communicated to employees in advance. It would be valuable to introduce the communication as a living document that will be revised as new information is made available.
In addition to the activities we have outlined, you will likely have more specific guidelines and tasks to undertake related to your industry or business. Reopening a retail business looks very different from reopening a manufacturing facility, for example. Look to industry groups, technical resources, or local guidelines specific to your work for recommendations.
Jen Owens is senior project manager at Antea Group.
Ben Hansen is senior consultant at Antea Group.