As workplaces slowly reopen and business activity gradually resumes in the midst of the biggest pandemic in modern history, safety is the biggest concern on everyone’s mind. Let’s explore health and safety issues unleashed by the coronavirus crisis and see how business leaders and employers can ensure a safe return to work.
A recent Washington Post poll of more than 8,000 adults revealed that 6 in 10 Americans working outside their homes feared they could catch the virus at work and infect their family members. Prevention and slowing down the spread of infection should be on top of every business owner’s agenda right now, but mitigating the risk of COVID-19 is not the only health and safety issue workplaces would be facing post lockdown.
The World Economic Forum is warning of a secondary epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism in the latter half of 2020. The law and order situation arising from political protests and criminal activity is aggravating stress levels and mental health risks among certain segments of the society. The numbers are coming in and they don’t look good.
According to a KFF tracking poll conducted in late April, nearly 40% of Americans report they have either lost a job or income or both because of COVID-19. Forty-five percent of respondents say the crisis has affected their mental health and 74% think the worst of the outbreak is yet to come.
The World Health Organization (WHO), the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the US government have outlined return to work guidelines and resources to ensure everyone’s physical and emotional health and well-being. The recommended safety measures include:
• Encouragement of remote working practices and culture
• Implementation of an interpersonal social distance of 2 meters or 6 feet at all times
• Frequent and thorough hand washing by employees, customers, contractors, and other people entering the place of work
• Frequent cleaning of common-touch surfaces, scrubbing of floors, and disinfecting of rooms and work stations that might have been exposed to infected individuals
• In-depth hazard assessment of the workplace and application of the CDC recommended hierarchy of controls to eliminate vulnerabilities
• Selection, distribution, and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) where health hazards cannot be removed completely, such as cleaning and disinfecting, in-person health screening, and face-to-face customer interactions
• Wearing of cloth face coverings by employees who don’t require PPE
• Implementation of daily health checks of employees before they enter the workplace
• Instructing employees to stay at home when they have even mild symptoms such as cough or a runny nose
• Making sure that the return to work criteria are met before employees under home isolation can be allowed to rejoin work
These are general directions that need to be adapted and customized before they can be applied to a specific business or workplace. For example, the considerations for the implementation of social distancing or remote working for an airline or manufacturing facility will be different from those for a restaurant or an advertising agency.
To enable everyone to return to work safely, businesses need to design a return to work plan. Business leaders can start by establishing a multidisciplinary team that will be responsible for developing, implementing and monitoring the return to work plan. The team could include heads of key departments such as HR, security, facility management, operations, health and safety, IT as well as representatives from employee or customer groups.
The return to work plan should take into account the location of the workplace, number of employees, residential areas and transportation arrangements of employees, and the evolving recommendations, directions and laws issued by state and local governments, such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) or the Prevention through Design (PtD) program recommended by the CDC.
HR, Security, and Facility Management teams have a mammoth task ahead. Together, they will be responsible for:
1. Identifying areas and processes that can be hazardous for people’s health and well-being
2. Suggesting and implementing the steps to eliminate or mitigate the risks
These three teams will need to work interactively and collaboratively to implement the new normal of workplace safety; so that workers can be assured the business is doing everything to protect their and their family members’ health.
While members from HR, Security and Facilities teams should work together to fulfill their roles in the new workplace, one of them has to play the lead in each particular activity. Let’s look at the role each of these teams needs to play for designing and implementing a safe and empathic return to work plan.
HR teams are responsible to identify and systematically mitigate high-risk situations that arise during day-to-day business interactions between employees, customers, and contractors. Examples of interpersonal hazardous situations can include face-to-face customer handling, large meetings and conferences, and in-person health scanning. HR teams also have a major role to play in ensuring mental and emotional health of employees.
People under stress can display a wide range of symptoms, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, and depression. HR teams are responsible to arrange counseling sessions and psychological help for workers who are showing these signs. They should identify and report such behaviors to Security to prevent any untoward situation.
Workers who develop the symptoms or test positive for COVID-19, or those who are coming to work after traveling to a high-risk zone need to be isolated or quarantined at home or a healthcare facility until they meet the criteria for rejoining work. The HR needs to keep a record of the number of days a particular person has been in isolation and coordinate with security to prevent their premature return. The HR also needs to communicate with all employees to stay home if they have cough, fever, or other symptoms of COVID-19.
HR will also take the lead in deciding which particular workplace roles can or cannot be fulfilled remotely and inform the management to provide work-from-home resources. Together with Security, HR will help determine how many workers need to return, how many can work remotely, and how many can work in shifts. For the accomplishment of these roles, the HR lead should break down each role into detailed tasks for HR teams and assign responsibility for each task.
The role of Security in post-COVID-19 rehabilitation of the workplace starts with hazard assessment in corroboration with HR and Facilities. Are the guidelines for social distancing being followed? Is the office access control system designed for the post-pandemic workplace; can it detect and restrain infected or symptomatic individuals? How to conduct daily health screening of employees? How to respond when a person develops symptoms of COVID-19 at work? These are the questions for the Security team to answer.
Security teams, in collaboration with health and safety teams, are also responsible to conduct travel, political and geographical risk analysis and formulate and implement security protocols to isolate or quarantine individuals in accordance with OSHA and CDC guidelines.
Economic recessions, psychological distress and layoffs can trigger criminal or self-destructive behavior. Security teams have the core responsibility to keep an eye out for threats to workplace security and work with HR and Facilities to identify and reduce such risks.
Facilities should work with HR, Security and other departmental teams to design and implement a new layout to create a socially distant, safe and hygienic workplace. Some of the tasks of that Facilities needs to perform to accomplish its role include:
• Placing hand sanitizer dispensers at prominent locations around the workplace
• Arranging hand washing access points
• Making and monitoring workplace cleaning and disinfecting policy and arrangements
• Taking steps to create a 6 Feet Office
• Ensuring that common touch surfaces are wiped down and disinfected frequently
• Considering the use of robots to clean and disinfect the workplace
• Selecting and commissioning a touchless access control system to eliminate the risk associated with contact based office entry solutions and enable remote health checks of employees
Safe return to work is not possible unless each employee cooperates with HR, Facilities, Security, Health and Safety teams by following the health and safety guidelines issued by global, federal, state, and local healthcare agencies. Wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer, maintain social distancing, and stay at home if you’re not feeling well. Wear PPE or a surgical cloth mask and follow the directions given by workplace managers to ensure everyone’s health and safety.
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