6 ways to help keep your workers safe
As the pandemic landscape shiﬅs, businesses adapt with an eye toward a better future
4 minute read
- Bringing workers back without exposing them and customers to disease is an evolving challenge
- Following local and federal health agencies will keep you current on shiﬅing public health guidance
- Best practices include basic infection prevention, changed workﬂows and adjusted HR policies
Almost as soon as the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the country, businesses began looking ahead to the day when they could bring employees back to factories, offices and stores. But doing that safely, without exposing workers and customers to an exceptionally contagious, virulent disease, requires careful planning, exacting execution and a surprising amount of trial and error, with best practices continuing to evolve as new information emerges.
“The essential fact about this infection continues to be that it spreads person to person,” says Susan Buchanan, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. “The biggest challenge is how to bring people back into work environments without increasing their risk of transmitting the infection to each other.” These best practices could help businesses meet that challenge.
1. Stay current on shiﬅing public health guidance
As we learn more about the virus, recommendations change to keep pace. Guidance that seems crucial at one stage — disinfecting grocery packages, for instance — is replaced by newer, more urgent concerns, such as improving air circulation. To track conditions in your area and keep up with evolving advice for businesses, Buchanan suggests consulting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state and local health agencies and the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
2. Insist on infection-prevention basics
Practicing social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, disinfecting surfaces — these are familiar but essential prerequisites if you want to bring employees back to an oﬃce, factory or retail store. “If you can’t keep your workers at least six feet apart and have them wear masks, then you have to consider not opening until case numbers decline in your area,” says Buchanan. Even with basic safety measures in place, you may want to bring back only a portion of your workforce at ﬁrst, carefully monitoring workers’ health to gauge the eﬀectiveness of your approach.
3. Adjust workﬂows and physical operations
Remote work and staggered factory shiﬅs can help keep your workers safe. If they must work in physical proximity to one another, having workers do so in small cohorts can make it easier to trace exposure if someone gets sick. Closing common areas or reducing their use may also help limit potential infections, as will restricting business travel. “Increase air circulation if possible,” Buchanan suggests, noting that this doesn’t mean turning on fans, which can spread viral particles, but rather improving air exchange and ﬁltering.
4. Use full protective gear only as a last resort
The medical-grade masks, helmets, heavy garments and gloves known as personal protective equipment (PPE) could help safeguard your employees, but at a cost. “People aren’t good at wearing PPE, and it’s uncomfortable,” says Buchanan. She notes that other adjustments — such as installing plexiglass dividers or slowing down production so that people can be farther apart — may be preferable. “That’s likely to work better than just saying everybody has to wear an N95 mask eight hours a day,” she says.
5. Involve everyone in the ﬁght
Defeating the virus and getting back to work requires widespread cooperation, Buchanan advises. Asking your workers and even your customers to take responsibility for each other’s safety can be a crucial part of your reopening plan. You could have employees use a smartphone app or company portal to assess themselves for possible symptoms every day. Checking temperatures on the way into the plant or oﬃce or at the door of a retail store can be a low-cost, visible means to reassure workers and customers that you consider safety a high priority.
6. Review human resources policies
Buchanan notes that one sticking point in controlling the virus has been the inadequacy of most companies’ sick leave policies. “During this pandemic, workers who have any symptoms of COVID-19 should not come to work” — and HR policies need to be adjusted so that employees aren’t penalized for staying home, she says. Businesses also need to allow days oﬀ to care for family members who are ill.
As much as businesses want to return to normal operations, progress toward that goal is likely to be gradual and sometimes halting, Buchanan says. Still, some changes instituted now could have positive long-term eﬀects. Having policies that encourage sick workers to stay home could reduce workplace transmission of a range of illnesses, and enabling some employees to continue to work remotely could boost productivity and lower expenses. Those and other changes could pave the way to a stronger post-coronavirus future.
- Workforce management
- Human resources
Susan Buchanan, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health