Although most state governments are now reopening their local economies, the lingering COVID-19-driven states of emergency across the country remind us that the virus is still a major threat to our health and safety. Your employees may be eager to return, but that doesn’t mean they can just resume working as before.
“To address this uniquely safety-driven crisis, employers will need to incorporate a number of new processes to help protect their employees,” says John Dony, director of the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council.
Here’s what you need to know to support your employees’ health and well-being in a post-COVID-19 workplace.
Employ Environmental Safety Measures
First, you must reduce risk and maintain safety in your physical workspace. Redesign workspaces to support social distancing and take precautions to ensure confined spaces never become overcrowded. “One of the most tangible considerations an organization needs to evaluate before bringing workers back is providing a safe physical environment,” Dony says.
Use workflow analysis to deconstruct your work processes and reconstruct them with social distancing in mind, suggests Tony Rodriguez, president and owner of Daniel Penn Associates, a consulting firm that helps national and international companies improve operating performance. If you can’t physically redesign the workplace because you’re using heavy equipment, for example, try staggered shifts to minimize the number of people in a workspace at any given time. Staggering is important for lunch and other breaks as well to prevent employees from congregating in one place.
Take physical movement into account, too. “Designate separate entrances and exits for buildings and rooms, if possible, and provide directional signage for traffic flow,” Dony says. This will prevent employees from bumping into each other in hallways. When people are standing in line at entrances or other limited capacity spaces, designate places where they can stand without coming into contact with each other. Finally, frequently sanitize the entire workspace to prevent diseases from spreading via surfaces.
Identify and Trace Viral Exposure
Take precautions to prevent COVID-19 from entering the workplace, but also have a plan in place in the event that your workplace is exposed. “Workplace testing and contact tracing are key to preventing another shutdown associated with a second wave of COVID-19 infections,” Dony points out. If possible, encourage all of your employees to get tested. But don’t let a negative test result lull you into false security. Incorporate temperature and symptom checks into your daily routine.
Plan to assess each employee’s temperature and symptoms upon entry. This is a necessary precaution, but be aware that it could affect your shift times, Rodriguez points out. “You may need to schedule employees to come in earlier than their scheduled shift,” he says. If possible, stagger shift times to decrease traffic at the entry point. Additionally, some people with COVID-19 may not present with symptoms, so continued social distancing is critical.
If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, you must be able to trace where they have been and who they’ve interacted with in the previous two weeks. The CDC provides guidance for contact tracing. If your workforce isn’t very large, your employees can keep a spreadsheet of their daily interactions to make contact tracing easier.
Supply Resources for Mental and Physical Well-Being
Ensuring health and safety in the workplace requires both equipment and resources, as well as process audits and new protocols. Commit to providing masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to your employees. These are critical for preventing viral spread. But it isn’t enough to just supply resources: Make sure employees are following protocols for wearing it. Accountability is critical to ensuring that COVID-19 doesn’t spread within the workplace.
“These processes have to become habits,” Rodriguez says. Consider combining the Gemba walk methodology from lean management principles that encourage leaders to “walk the floor” to understand the work experience of their frontlines workers’ perspectives with daily operational safety checklists to help identify and remove unsafe behavior or processes. Building these processes into everyone’s daily routine will create a culture of accountability for health and safety in the workplace.
Now is also a good time to ensure that employees have access to employee assistance programs (EAPs). “Employers have a responsibility to address mental health and wellbeing in the workplace,” Dony says. Employees are experiencing a great deal of anxiety. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, 57% of employees reported experiencing increased anxiety. Safety protocols such as masks and social distancing at work, while essential, could exacerbate these worries. Be prepared with resources to support your workers’ wellbeing.
You can find additional resources from the National Safety Council’s return-to-work guidance.