COVID-19: 7 Safety Questions to ask before the return to work
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a threat that’s here to stay. It has become clear that despite lifting some of the stricter rules, nothing will be quite the same as before. Until a more permanent solution is available, we will have to adapt the way we operate before we can return to work.
Several weeks into “lockdown”, some countries have started easing restrictions on non-essential businesses. The plan is to do so slowly and tentatively, while watching out for a second wave of infections. Therefore, it is inevitable that the safest path to the new normal will be a long one.
In a way, countries such as China, Spain and Italy are serving as a control group in an experiment. Other nations where the number of new cases is not yet low enough to lift measures will be watching.
EHS professionals are playing a crucial role during this crisis, and the challenge will intensify before everyone officially returns to work. There are long-term changes to consider, but what should you be thinking about now?
Here are seven questions to ask yourself.
1. How will you identify risk hotspots in your business?
The first step in a safety plan is to identify existing hazards. Areas that did not pose a risk before might have become hazardous for virus transmission.
Therefore, it is time to review your workplace with new eyes.
An easy way of identifying hazards is by seeing them. In that respect, OSHA recommends walkarounds as an efficient tool. However, instead of reviewing the effectiveness of existing safety programs, you will now be exploring new indicators prior to normal operations returning.
Questions you should ask yourself while conducting a SARS-CoV-2 control walkaround should include:
- Where are the high traffic spots where crowding may occur?
- Which areas are too narrow to allow physical distancing during circulation?
- What areas/objects will be touched more frequently by employees?
- What distance is between desks right now? Does it respect safety guidelines?
The information gathered during this exercise should be used in a Risk Assessment, a formal way to document hazards and put controls in place.
2. How will you ensure physical distancing?
During the previous exercise it is likely you will have identified several bottlenecks and high traffic areas in your workplace that could encourage close contact between employees. The question is, how will you prevent this from happening once they return to work?
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, many organizations have implemented the following solutions:
- Separated desks by 6ft
- Staggered shifts to distribute employees
- All non-essential staff working from home
In China, when companies returned to work, they were only allowed to have 50% of their staff in at the same time and had to keep desks 6-feet apart. Employees got food delivered to their desks rather than visiting the cafeteria for their lunch break.
Although these measures will address physical distancing between employees while they work, during your walkthrough you will likely also come across high traffic areas like the foyer, the kitchen or the lift. It is harder to limit people’s movement when they are not static, and here you will rely a lot more on your staff’s training and willingness to abide by the rules.
In this case, your goal is to make it as easy as possible for staff to follow guidelines.
It is hard to tell what a 6 ft distance looks like without a measuring tape, which is why sticker markings on supermarket floors have been so effective. This is a viable and economic option for places where people might agglomerate.
Limiting the amount of people allowed in a lift or in the kitchen at one time is also vital, as they will be frequented areas even if operating with half the staff.
In Italy, some employers have even taken it as far as having traffic lights for toilet breaks!
3. How will you reduce the risk of contamination?
First, consider what objects employees come into contact with the most around workplace.
Is it the doorknobs? The buttons on the lift? The soap dispensers in the bathroom?
Biometric authentication company NEC has developed facial recognition software that is capable of recognizing people even with masks on. Fujitec is working on elevator technology that lets users hold their hand near infrared sensors to choose their floor.
Technology like this could become the “new normal” in Japan and other advanced economies to minimize touch and contamination of surfaces.
For the time being, other touchless solutions more readily available for the workplace include magnetic passes that allow employees to open doors, or automatic soap-dispensers and hand-dryers in bathrooms.
Furthermore, QR codes are a useful tool to let employees access an online form with their own device, such as a self-assessment survey when they arrive onsite. This means no contact with company IT hardware, and less interaction with staff until the person completes their assessment.
However, thoroughly disinfecting surfaces remains a basic for returning to business.
SARS-CoV-2 has an extended lifecycle of up to 72 hours on surfaces like plastic and metal, so consistent cleaning is imperative. Before you return to work, you should consider how your company will be addressing a more intensive cleaning schedule.
Many businesses started ordering sanitary PPE long ago, with the expectation of delivery delays and shortages.
It is important to note that new PPE must be accompanied by training. There is a lot of misinformation on when and how to use face masks, so training should aim toward SARS-CoV-2.
Follow World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on how to correctly use PPE. There is a section on the website providing advice to decision makers on the use of masks for healthy people in community settings.
4. How are you maintaining your facilities during lockdown?
Buildings that were maintained during lockdown will return to business relatively quickly and safely, once permitted.
However, buildings that didn’t receive proper care during closure could become a health hazard to occupants.
As an unintended consequence of closure, pipes of unused buildings store water for unusually long periods of time. This favors the growth of organisms such as Legionella, which can cause pneumonia in humans.
Furthermore, with certain pipe materials, stagnant water accumulates high levels of lead and copper over time, which also have harmful consequences.
To prevent this from happening, you must flush buildings to replace all the old water with new water at least weekly. All buildings are different, so this might take a few hours or even days.
If flushing has not been done during closure, you should conduct your water safety risk assessment procedure. You should also carry out tests to ensure the safety of the water before employees can return to work.
Moreover, ventilation and AC systems can be compromised from a prolonged closure period. If they stop functioning, this could lead to a dust and bacteria build-up. If they continue working as usual, AC systems will operate as if it would for facility full of workers. It will take into account the heat generated by bodies. With buildings being empty, humidity will be too high without that extra heat and cause mold growth. If you decide to leave the AC systems working during closure period, you should re-adjust temperature to take this into consideration.
5. How will you train your staff on new measures?
In countries with less strict lockdown measures such as Sweden, governments are relying on the public choosing to act safely in order to curb the infection rate. This requires clear, effective communication from the government.
Similarly, workplace rules will only work if you communicate them with clarity and reinforce them with training. Training will be at the core of success.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, restrictions to presential learning have driven a shift to online courses. If universities all over the world have managed to shift their learning online, SARS-CoV-2 awareness training should be no different. The most common equipment to feature in the training will be basic PPE such as face masks, which makes it easy to be conducted remotely.
Employees should be fully aware of changes before returning to work. This way guidelines will be followed from the beginning, and workers will have some control over all the uncertainty.
Since it will take some time for people to adjust, you can increase awareness by using visual icons . You can access free COVID-19 Awareness icons from Pro-Sapien to support your return to work initiatives.
6. How will you support your staff’s mental health?
Although COVID-19 targets physical health, it has also taken a heavy toll on global morale.
The uncertainty of job security, building pressure at home and the fear of the disease in itself are all contributing factors that can negatively influence people’s mental health.
Consequently, the return to work should be a slow and calculated one.
Many employees might have been directly affected by the virus and their pain should not be overlooked. Flexibility will be required and vulnerable people might not return for some time.
As staff work on staggered shifts or continue working from home, a good communication structure will be crucial to monitor colleagues’ mental health. Corporate IT like Microsoft Teams allows team members to stay in touch.
Furthermore, you should make your staff aware of available helplines, even before they return to work. Consider that employees might not be willing to share their personal grievances with a work colleague. Some employers have gone one step further, like the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), to provide an internal helpline for employees.
7. How will you evaluate the effectiveness of these measures?
There is no way for you to know risk controls are working if you cannot evaluate how successful they are.
Trained employees should be able to tell when rules are not being followed, or when procedures are not doing what they were designed to do.
Proactive EHS professionals with an engaged workforce will want to get employees in on the act. One way to do that is with a simple Observations tool—a short form that you typically fill out in on a mobile device, sometimes anonymously.
For example, a UK-based Pro-Sapien client in the oil and gas industry is encouraging employees to use their Safety Intervention form to highlight problems with social distancing or other new policies. This way, the safety team can identify gaps in safety measures.
You can also use Inspections to review measures on a regular basis and to take heed of employee observations.
If these insights are tracked and addressed, it makes the workplace a safer place.
Additionally, being able to see data from Observations, Inspections and Risk Assessments in visual dashboards allows EHS Managers to make important decisions quickly before an issue gets out of hand.
An Ongoing Situation
Above all, it is important to follow government guidelines on what to continue doing to ensure a safe environment for our employees in the light of COVID-19. Some governments have already issued guidelines for the return to work and we will likely continue to receive information on any changing circumstances.
As we all have realized by now, this threat is here for the long-term, and although it is clear that remaining in full lockdown for the foreseeable is not an option, some of these changes are here to stay.
Since we do not know how long the threat will last, the situation will change continuously. Effective preparedness will be determined by solid safety measures, but also by our ability to adapt these to changing conditions.