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How to Keep Grocery Employees Safe from COVID-19

By Henry Skjerven
Published: January 29, 2021
Key Takeaways

With the right controls in place, the risk of COVID-19 transmission can be managed.

Caption: Grocery cashier wearing safety mask Source: Pixfly / iStock

COVID-19 and its variants are a known workplace hazard.

On a standard risk matrix, the virus would be classified as:

  • High risk
  • Highly likely for transmission/infection
  • With severe consequences/costs, including death
  • Requiring immediate and comprehensive action

With the proper control systems in place, potential exposures can be reduced. That will take diligence: both corporate and personal.

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COVID-19 is bad for people and bad for business. It is out of control in most of the world and won't be going away anytime soon, herd immunity and vaccinations aside.

Keeping grocery workers safe from COVID-19 requires the same level of occupational health and safety system as any business that is:

  1. Deemed an essential service
  2. Public facing, with a high potential for contacts
  3. In need of protecting workers for the foreseeable future

(Find out How to Manage COVID-19 in Your Workplace)

The CDC’s Take on COVID-19

First, consider how the disease is spread. The CDC is a great resource, and explains:

  • COVID-19 spreads very easily from person to person
  • COVID-19 most commonly spreads during close personal contact
  • COVID-19 can sometimes be spread by airborne transmission
  • COVID-19 spreads less commonly through contact with contaminated surfaces
  • COVID-19 rarely spreads between people and animals

The CDC also speaks to the following control methods: “Protect yourself and others. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus.“ The CDC also offers the following steps to slow the spread.

While these are the same things we have all heard, every day, for almost a year, they are and will remain true.

Grocery Stores: Business Built on Personal Contact

COVID-19 is an identified, compensable workplace hazard. Because of mutations in the virus itself, variants emerging around the world are even more contagious than the original strain. Add to that early reports from the United Kingdom, which point to that variant being potentially more severe to those infected.

That puts the onus for managing the hazard on the entire staff of a grocery store, with education and training about the disease being a critical part of the overall system. Everyone has to be aware of what it is and what can be done. And they have to do just that; it has to be the new normal in terms of daily operations in the store.

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One of the key factors that must be considered is the simple fact that a grocery store cannot operate in a bubble, like some sports are having a degree of success with. That means that one of the first areas of concern is identifying the vectors by which staff can be exposed. By definition, people are the primary vector for the virus, with personal contact the highest potential for transmission.

A brief listing of prime points of contact for grocery staff:

  • Customers
  • Families/personal contacts of staff
  • Public transportation for staff, getting to and from work, as well as their use of personal vehicles
  • The supply chain for the store’s products
  • The efficiency of the store’s HVAC system
  • Cash handling
  • Material handling
  • The operational processes for getting out of the store

A simple example of this last bullet? Think of this process that we have all been through at the store:

  • Taking the receipt from the cashier, a hand-to-hand transfer of a paper receipt.
  • At some stores, the customer hands their receipt to another store employee who is responsible for checking to ensure the cart's contents match the items on the receipt, then handing the receipt back to the customer.
  • The customer then goes home and the receipt lies on the kitchen counter or table as the groceries are unpacked and put away.

See any opportunities for transmission in that scenario?

Mitigating the Transmission of COVID-19

In the US, a well-known big box grocery chain had over 275,000,000 customers in 2019. The contact extrapolation for that number is many times that number, even limiting store capacity and hours of operation.

That might seem like an insurmountable issue, but it isn't. It just requires an investment of time and money to protect the staff.

This can be done, in part, by applying hazard controls, such as administrative controls, engineering controls, and PPE.

(Learn more in A Primer on Engineering Controls)

The staff should also be given thorough training on how to work under current conditions.

For example, an OSHA document on Grocery Store Employee Training specifies that the following should be covered just for hand washing:

  • Wash hands and scrub with soap for at least 20 seconds:
    • When employees arrive and before they leave work.
    • Before and after eating or preparing food.
    • Before and after using the toilet.
    • After close interaction with other persons.
    • After contacting shared surfaces or tools.
    • Before and after wearing (changing) a mask or gloves.
    • After blowing nose, coughing or sneezing
    • Explain that hand sanitizers are not as effective as hand-washing but can be used as an interim measure if a hand-washing station is not immediately available.

This demonstrates just how detailed the training must be for this critical preventative measure.

There are excellent resources, in North America from recognized OHS sources and the FDA, as well as the CDC, NIOSH, ANSI and others. These are the go-to stops for anyone setting up, auditing or doing performance checks on their COVID-19 hazard control system.

Safety Is in the Details

While the risk assessment of the COVID-19 hazard in grocery stores is ranked as medium to low with all controls in place, it will be your attention to detail that will provide the absolute best protection to grocery store staff. And those details are all critical.

Keep it sanitized. Keep it safe. Mask up. Educate, educate, educate. And work to control the spread, every day, at work, at home, and everywhere in between.

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Written by Henry Skjerven

Mr. Skjerven has consulted professionally for over 27 years, with extensive Canadian experience, literally from coast to coast but with a home base in Western Canada. His experience ranges from marketing, adult education, and heavy transportation (rail) to municipal public works, fleet and transportation, oil and gas construction in the tar sands, emergency response (Fire and Ambulance), Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Security, as well as human resources and software systems, including enterprise style projects.

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