Updated: May 14
Getting Back to Work Safely – How companies are developing a range of health and safety protocols
The devastating effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the global economy, citing for instance the U.S. Census Bureau report of overall retail sales during March were down 8.7 percent seasonally. In March, the United States saw a 6.3% decline in manufacturing. The outbreak is expected to wipe out 6.7% of working hours across the world during the second quarter of 2020 that could result in nearly 200 million people losing their jobs worldwide. There is therefore a mounting pressure for businesses to bring their staff back to work, considering the financial impact that the coronavirus has had on a business and household level. As states start to reopen, we have highlighted below measures that companies have put in place to get their workforce back to work safely as they resume their business operations.
The risk of propagating coronavirus in the workplace starts with identifying the methods through which workers commute. Since contractors of the virus are often asymptomatic, workers taking public transport could unknowingly be at risk of contamination, considering preventive methods are limited. Employers are encouraged to assess these commuting methods, and where necessary or in the absence of public transport, private hire arrangements are recommended. The latter would allow companies to have greater control on the number of workers allowed, social distancing and also, giving further flexibility on work start and finish times. Guidance on issues with workforce that travel can be helpful for employers to review to ensure compliance with the ever changing regulations and guidance.
Screening methods located at the entry and exit points of buildings, be it in offices, shops, factories or hospitals, should be adopted. These include conducting temperature checks with infrared scanners to test for fevers and enforcing hand and shoe sanitization by spraying disinfectant. In addition, companies should ask employees to disclose any potential symptoms they may have and should the event arise, have relevant quarantine procedures in place, in order to protect other workers and the public. In the case of US-based companies, such measures are allowed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On another note, workers’ health data, collected by companies for the purpose of testing for COVID-19, should be collected, processed and stored with respect to existing data privacy laws.
Health and Safety in the Workplace
The health, safety and welfare of workers, by law, should be guaranteed by their employers. Common measures adopted worldwide, in light of the coronavirus, include enforcing the wearing of protective masks, frequent deep cleaning and decontamination of high-contact surfaces such as door handles, taps, and switches, and providing access to handwash and sanitizers. In certain cases, sharing of space (hot-desking) and sharing of office supplies, such as pens and phones, should also be avoided.
Nonetheless, the welfare of workers extends beyond the physical. Employers should also take discretionary measures to look after and provide necessary support for the mental health of employees. This may include frequent checking in with people, encouraging sense of control in their work and most importantly, encouraging positive interaction in the organization to create a sense of belonging to a community – although respecting social distancing. Some have done the latter through virtual coffees, through digital workplace and virtual group gatherings.
Work Space Design
Taking the example of Fiat Chrysler, the car manufacturer, the company has opted for redesigning work stations to account for social distancing and decontamination measures. Their Chinese counterparts have also made spatial configurations to keep employees segregated, by placing desks and workstations at least two meters apart and not facing each other.
For client-facing businesses such as restaurants and bars, floor markings are useful in maintaining the suggested two meter distance and in the case of checkout lanes at grocery stores, plexiglass screens were erected to protect clerks and clients. Certainly, such redesigning of space limits the numbers of customers or workers at the office at any one time. In fact, this calls for alternated shift schedules to avoid congestion on the premises. Where possible, working from home should be emphasized and critical business activities such as meetings, recruitment and employee development should shift to online platforms.
The above measures are a good starting point for preventing against further propagation of the COVID-19, but this list is certainly non-exhaustive. Companies are encouraged to conduct a thorough hazard and risk assessment, to identify, assess and mitigate relevant risks associated with the coronavirus and their impact on the workforce. The abundance of online resources, such as the WHO’s guide on “Getting your workplace ready for COVID-19”, provide additional guidelines to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of all parties. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) has also issued Interim Guidance for Employers and Business responding to Covid-19 that should also be considered. That said, companies should also put relevant resources including training at the disposal of workers and take efforts to educate and remind them of the safety protocols implemented and compliance requirements.