Business owners all over the country are hoping that soon offices and stores will re-open and they’ll be able to bring their employees back to work. When that happens, a “normal” work-space and work life will look a little different than what you’re used to. It will be important for businesses to take steps to make sure employees, customers, and visitors can work and shop safely.
To help employers do this, OSHA has put together a set of guidelines that provides advice on creating safe, healthy workplaces. According to OSHA, employers should take steps to enhance workplace safety as soon as possible—before employees return to work.
1. Develop an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan
OSHA recommends employers develop a plan to determine how best to protect against the coronavirus. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds: An infection preparedness plan is just a way of organizing what you need before you’re likely to need it. If you have a plan in place, you can hit the ground running once you reopen.
Some things the plan should consider include:
- Keeping up with any federal, state, and local regulations, and incorporating them into the plan as needed
- Whether there are different levels of risk for different types of workers – For instance, in a grocery store, a cashier has a higher level of risk than someone working the night shift to restock shelves.
- How the workplace and work practices can be modified to reduce the risk of spread
- How the workplace will deal with issues related to COVID-19 spread, such as higher rates of absenteeism and interruptions in supply chains
2. Control Infection in the Workplace
Most workplaces will need to implement basic measures to help control the risk of infection. Some ways to do this include setting up sanitation stations and promoting “respiratory etiquette.”
Some workplaces may already have a layout that allows some or most employees to work separately, with the necessary six feet of distance. But that isn’t the case for most. Partitions, screens, and enclosures can help workers maintain social distance at work. Besides social distancing, physical barriers like these have many advantages. They:
- Help reduce the risk posed by sneezing and coughing
- Are easy and quick to assemble
- Are easy to clean thanks to resistance to damage by alcohol disinfectant
- Are non-flammable
- Are easily re-configured
Improving workplace ventilation can protect employees by diluting airborne contaminants and reducing the risk that someone might inhale infectious particles. A ventilation system should be in use whenever the building is occupied, instead of just at certain times. In a mechanical system, increasing the rate of fresh air flow from the outside to the inside also makes the system more effective. Simply opening windows can help too, by bringing more fresh air inside.
These measures should be balanced by controlling airflow inside the building so potentially contaminated air isn’t recirculated. For instance, it’s better to keep interior doors and windows closed. If the building has an air conditioning system, it should be configured so that it’s not recirculating air.
Good hygiene is one of the simplest, most effective defenses against the coronavirus. Employers can help by ensuring all employees, customers, and visitors have access to soap and running water, either in a bathroom or elsewhere. If this isn’t possible, alcohol-based hand sanitizer should be easily accessible at everyone’s workstation and in common areas.
Sanitation stations should also include tissues and a covered, hands-free bin for disposing of them once they’ve been used.
While most people already know to cover their nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze, not everyone knows the most effective way to do it. The CDC recommends coughing or sneezing into a tissue, disposing of the tissue, and then washing your hands. You can promote good respiratory etiquette at work by:
- Circulating an email about it
- Adding signs around the workplace, describing the safest way to cover a sneeze or cough
3. Change Workplace Policies and Practices
In some workplaces, all or a portion of employees may be able to keep working at home for the foreseeable future. But that won’t be the case everywhere. For any employers that can do so, it makes sense to have people work from home as much as possible. This might involve changing certain workplace policies to help people do this.
Flexible Work Hours
Flexible working hours can be a good compromise when people can’t work from home. For instance, it may be possible to stagger shifts so some people work from home in the morning, then come into work in the afternoon, while others do the opposite. This means there are fewer people in the workplace throughout the day. It also helps those who are there to maintain physical distance.
OSHA also recommends that employers work to develop flexible leave policies, so employees can take time off if they need to. For instance, it’s common to require a doctor’s note in cases of illness, but since many healthcare workers are extremely busy and may not be able to provide documentation, employers may consider relaxing those requirements.
Many workplaces implemented hot-desking to reduce costs and help people work more flexibly. But hot-desking—where employees grab desk space when they need it, instead of having their own designated space—is less desirable now. Sharing desk space, and even office tools and equipment, is discouraged due to infection risks. Now it’s better for each employee to have their own space, equipment, and tools.
Implementing flexible work hours can help make this work, as fewer people in the office mean the available space and equipment go further. You could also ask employees to skip seats, staying six feet apartment. The easiest solution is to install simple physical barriers between seating areas. These maintain the aesthetic of an office space focused on teamwork while reducing the risk of infection.
Housekeeping and Sanitation
Regular cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, tools, and equipment is the final piece of the puzzle. Employees should clean and disinfect their spaces and items both at the start and end of their shifts, and as needed. OSHA recommends that employers provide cleaning chemicals that are EPA-approved effective against emerging viral pathogens. Cleaners labelled in this way are expected to be able to kill the novel coronavirus when diluted and used according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
4. What Happens If Someone Is Sick?
OSHA recommends that employers encourage workers to stay home if they get sick. It’s also important that you have procedures in place to take care of anyone who becomes sick while they’re at work.
Some options include:
- Making sure all employees are aware of the signs of COVID-19 – Remind people to monitor themselves for symptoms and report any symptoms right away.
- Procedures that kick in if an employee does report symptoms of illness – For instance, designating an isolation room so that person can be isolated to protect others
- Providing PPE for anyone who is sick, keeping coughing and sneezing in check until they can get home
- Providing PPE to employees who have been in contact with the sick person or updating your leave policy so those employees can stay home until they’re sure they’re not sick
Keeping Employees Safe Helps Your Business Stay Open
Every business is different and will have hurdles to overcome before reopening. By taking these steps now, you can minimize the risks posed by the coronavirus in your workplace. This will help ensure your employees are safe when they return to work.