Working in remote locations creates unique challenges for managing numerous safety issues. The advent of COVID-19 has only added to this problem.

An outbreak at a remote work location can cause several significant complications. For rotational work like the jobs performed on oil rigs, production platforms, remote mines, and remote construction projects, the challenges are magnified significantly. Some of them will relate to managing transportation, accommodations, shared facilities, social distancing, use of masks, work schedules, critical path work, and medical facilities - and those are just a few of the concerns you'll be dealing with.

An outbreak in an isolated location can have a significant impact on your business, the health of your employees, and the communities in which your employees reside. Good management practices are essential to ensure your business can continue uninterrupted and to ensure your employees stay safe.

In this article, we'll go over the things you'll need to know and processes you'll need to implement to deal with COVID-19 in remote work locations.

Create a COVID-19 Management Committee

Your organization should have a COVID-19 management committee tasked with guiding its COVID efforts.

Your committee should consist of senior management and medical professionals, along with professionals who have expertise in the area and can be relied on to have the latest available information.

The management committee will also want to ensure that auditing is conducted to measure the effectiveness of the controls that have been implemented.

Planning Considerations

The layout of the work area and the facilities may need to be modified to ensure that social distancing is possible.

Additional PPE may also be required to prevent the spread of infection.

Pre-Travel Screening Tests

Workers should be screened prior to entering a helicopter, plane, or bus to travel your remote location. Screening questions should be compiled by a medical professional or health organization recommendations.

Workers should also be screened prior to leaving the remote site. This will reduce the risk of spreading the virus to communities outside your location.

Self-Isolation

Workers who need to travel across state, provincial, or national borders to work for you should be isolated for a predetermined amount of time before setting foot on your worksite.

The standard isolation time for COVID-19 is 14 days but this may vary if your organization has testing available.

Testing

When testing workers for potential infection, bear in mind that there are two types of tests available for COVID-19: viral tests and antibody tests.

Viral Tests

A viral test (nucleic acid or antigen) will reveal whether the person being tested has a current infection.

These tests can be administered at the point of care, with results available in less than an hour. Or they may require being sent to a lab for analysis, which can take approximately one to two days before getting the results.

Antibody tests

An antibody test can tell you if the person being tested has had a past infection. However, it can take one to three weeks for an antibody test to show results for a current infection since it takes that long for your body to make the antibodies.

The CDC doesn’t currently recommend the use of an antibody testing as the sole diagnosis of COVID-19 infection.

Provide an Appropriate Orientation

New and returning employees should be immediately briefed on your organization's COVID-19 restrictions and protocols.

Rotational workers should be given a brief update when they return to work, with special attention paid to any changes or updates to your COVID-19 management strategy.

Take Mask Use Seriously

Use of face masks should be enforced when social distancing of six feet cannot be maintained.

In situations where half-face respirators may be required, you will need to establish fit testing methods that won't risk exposing the tester or the one being tested to the virus.

Half-face respirators will need to be properly cleaned and sanitized. Your organization will need to ensure sufficient sanitizing stations and materials are available.

(Find out How to Complete a Respirator Fit Test)

Ensure Hand Hygiene

Mandate washing hands prior to donning or doffing a face mask, after using the restroom, before eating, and as required throughout the day.

Where soap and water are not available, workers can use hand sanitizer with a 60 to 95% alcohol level.

Sanitize Tools and Equipment

Shared tools and equipment may need to be sanitized between users.

When this isn't possible, workers should use gloves when handling shared equipment.

(Learn more about Managing the Coronavirus by Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Sterilizing the Workplace)

Optimize Your PPE Supply

Keeping your PPE supply stocked and refreshed can be a challenge during these times. Workers and industries that normally don't make extensive use of personal protective equipment are now purchasing additional stock, which can lead to shortages.

There are tools and apps available to help calculate your PPE burn rate. Using one will help you stay on top of your supply. Calculating your burn rate helps estimate how many days your PPE supply will last given current inventory levels. Min/Max levels should be established, adhered to, and adjusted as required.

Get an accurate sense of your current PPE inventory, supply chain, and burn rate. Make sure that you are adequately supplied and will be able to keep your workers equipped and protected now and in the near future.

Make Adjustments to the Work Schedule

Consider adjusting the work schedule to reduce the risk of transmission.

This could involve creating an additional shift to reduce the number of employees working together at a given time. You can also stagger start times and break times to reduce crowding where spaces are limited.

Evaluate Travel Companies

Airlines, bus charters, and helicopter charters will have their own protocols in place to manage the spread of COVID-19. You will need to ensure that those protocols are as rigorous as the ones you require on your worksite.

You may also need to audit them to ensure that they are adhering their stated procedures.

Accommodations

Ideally, every worker will have their own room with their own bathroom. However, this is not always possible in ships, rigs, or in camps with limited facilities.

If personnel must share rooms or washrooms, you may need to take a serious look at which of your employees are essential. If too few employees can be expended, you will need to establish strict cleaning and disinfecting protocols and provide workers with the materials they need to adequately clean their own living areas.

Note that this does not negate the need for cleaning staff to clean rooms and washrooms.

Establish an Isolation Facility

Part of your COVID-19 management plan will be preparing for an eventual outbreak in your workplace. One of the major questions will be where you will isolate infected personnel.

In some cases, they will be able to quarantine in their own rooms. When that can't be achieved, you will need to establish a quarantine area that will provide infected workers with the amenities they need while containing the spread of the virus.

You will also need to have a plan in place for how to safely transport to the quarantined area or to a medical facility.

Perform Regular Audits

To ensure your engineering controls, administrative controls and PPE are working as they should, you will need to regularly audit their compliance. It is not effective to implement numerous controls if they are not being enforced or audited for effectiveness. Auditing can also reveal opportunities for improvement or identify gaps in your COVID-19 management plan.