Even as Americans line up to receive vaccines against COVID-19, there remains uncertainty around how long individuals and businesses will need to continue taking precautions in public areas and workplaces. A year into the pandemic, America is still waiting to achieve herd immunity through vaccination. We’ve certainly progressed from where we were in 2020, but we have a long way to go before the vaccine has reached enough of the population that governments and businesses can start moving toward something like normalcy.
While the vaccine is being rolled out, unvaccinated individuals remain at risk, and new variants of the virus are prompting fresh concerns about keeping people safe as they gradually return to normal work. Throughout the crisis, virtually all businesses have struggled to account for the myriad risk factors that have been introduced to their work sites, introducing new safety risks and increasing the likelihood of injury.
Running a manufacturing center, warehouse, office, or virtually any other workplace during a health crisis means adjusting entire floors and rearranging workstations to accommodate for social distancing requirements, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even after implementing illness prevention measures, testing, and contact tracing, employees still face risk both from the virus and from the increased stress that comes with a changing work environment. New scheduling practices, altered workstations or processes, and inconsistent ergonomic standards for remote workers can all drive up the risk of work-related injuries. And in today’s world, the last thing any business or agency needs is to spend more of its budget on claims, fines or growing absenteeism.
That’s why it’s so important for employers to carefully audit their facilities and processes for COVID-19 preparedness as well as new risk factors for injury. Safety leaders have identified a few essential components for this risk assessment and plan of change that can help businesses keep their facilities running while minimizing the risk of illness and injury to their employees.
Many businesses have opted to bring in third-party safety support to address these five key factors in a successful safety plan throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
1. Workforce Planning
Regardless of niche or industry, no business can hope to navigate this crisis without a well-researched plan. Start by creating a committee whose members represent all affected areas of the business, from operations and logistics to finance and human resources. Focus on these areas as you develop a plan for daily operations, staffing, workplace accommodations and employee safety.
- Feasibility: Which parts of your operation can reasonably accommodate the changes needed to keep working with social distancing and other concerns addressed?
- Pandemic preparedness: Take stock of your inventory of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ensure you are equipped with the resources all departments will need to function. Key equipment includes NIOSH-certified N95 face masks and face shields.
- Communication: Work to establish transparency between management and the workforce. All employees should be kept up to date on the latest safety and health information from the CDC and other resources. Strong communication can help create a more positive culture around working during the pandemic.
- Supply chains: Assess the health of your supply chains at each point to identify any shortages, delays or obstacles to production.
2. Physical Environment Planning
Collect as much data on your work sites and facilities as possible and identify risk levels on a granular level. Key space considerations include:
- Communal areas and points of entry: These locations are likely to present higher risk of illness transmission, and businesses should eliminate gatherings and minimize interactions between employees in these areas.
- Workstations: Evaluate how much distance you will need to create between workstations and desks.
- Third parties: Many businesses have chosen to limit the presence of contractors and other common workplace visitors not employed by the company or agency. In some cases, non-employees are limited to certain areas of the facilities or specific times during the week.
3. Active Monitoring
Businesses looking to continue operations throughout the COVID-19 crisis are responsible for creating an environment that encourages accurate reporting of illness cases and helps both the employer and employees minimize the risk of an outbreak.
- Testing and screening: Testing for the coronavirus and its variants has become less expensive and more available as the pandemic has progressed. Use testing strategies that have been vetted for effectiveness by public health officials in line with the latest guidance. Temperature checks and symptom questionnaires can also help prevent the spread of the virus.
- Contact tracing: One of the most important aspects of containing the spread of the virus, contact tracing, requires businesses to identify persons who interacted with colleagues who have tested positive. Individuals who have come into contact with carriers of the virus should self-isolate for at least 10–14 days.
- Community thresholds: Monitor positive test rates and totals in your surrounding community. Spikes in case rates may require scheduling changes or other adaptations in the workplace.
4. Prevention and Sustainability
Businesses must ensure that their employees stay healthy in order to continue operations. But in addition to that, organizations must also ensure that they can sustain operations under current conditions, which, in many cases, are drastically different from normal operations.
- Vaccine communication: It’s in the best interest of the employer to have as many employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. State governments are largely prioritizing vaccine distribution according to risk, meaning that elderly persons, essential workers, and people with certain health conditions will be able to receive the shots first. Keep the lines of communication open with employees and inform them of any updates in the vaccine rollout process. Transparency will also encourage employees to opt into the vaccine if they have concerns about its efficacy.
- Ongoing monitoring: Many businesses have elected to create long-term task groups dedicated to keeping the organization in line with public health guidelines and the latest safety recommendations.
5. On-site Safety Support
Though many employers opted to reduce their third-party safety support for both budgetary and safety reasons, in 2021 our understanding of the virus has now progressed enough that essential safety services can return to work sites at a minimum of risk. New solutions have also emerged to help businesses stay on track with their safety goals, including:
- Virtual training: Many providers now allow employers to connect their employees with safety programming via video conferencing software. Biomechanics training, stretch and flex, conditioning, and mobility training can all be carried out virtually, either in groups or individual sessions.
- Ergonomic assessments: To help adjust new work environments to ergonomic best practices, specialists can review facilities or at-home work setups to help employees create safe workstations. These evaluations can often be performed via video.
- Mental health and wellness support: Given the unprecedented stress workers are experiencing during the pandemic, employers can offer some support through mental health programming and supplementary materials. Some providers have created smartphone apps that help employees manage stress and care for their bodies on and off the job.
(Learn more about The Rise of Safety e-Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic)
Working safely during COVID-19 requires planning.
We’ve made strides in understanding how the virus works and how it affects risk for employees, but the best defense against illness, high costs and a spike in work-related injuries is a thoughtful, proactive plan. Incorporate these key pillars of workplace safety during the pandemic, and you’ll be well on your way to smooth operations and safer, happier employees.