With most states easing restrictions on social distancing, many businesses are eager to return to work. But don’t plan to rush back into business as usual. Bringing employees back to work during the COVID-19 pandemic requires thoughtful and thorough planning. A thorough return-to-work plan evaluates and prevents potential risks from viral exposure while still supporting business operations.
There are six stages to reopening your business during the pandemic, says Stephen Farrelly, senior vice president of commercial insurance and risk management at USI Insurance Services. These stages are pre-planning and risk assessment, preparing and readying the workforce, reopening, and adjusting and responding.
In fact, balanceTRAK is excited to host a webinar with Andy Rice, Principal and Lead Strategist for Black Box Consulting, to offer insights on safely re-opening workplaces across the nation. Join us on July 8 at 3 p.m.!
Clear leadership and guidance are essential as your business prepares to reopen. “It’s important to know who at your organization is guiding this,” Farrelly says. “Identify personnel to enforce and monitor health controls.”
Here’s how you can plan for your employee and customer safety before reopening your workplace.
Develop Protocols for Preventing and Reporting Exposure
The most important contingency to plan for as you reopen is exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. This could refer to a diagnosis or someone who has flu-like symptoms. Employees who are sick or have been exposed to the virus are entitled to paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)
By the time an employee tests positive, they may have been contagious for up to two weeks. Put protocols in place for identifying coworkers who have been exposed. “Do contact tracing within the workplace and inform employees who may have been exposed,” says Marc Alifanz, principal at Alifanz HR Law and Consulting. “You will need to act quickly to prevent further spreading.”
You may be obligated to report a positive diagnosis to local health authorities and to OSHA. These regulations are subject to change, so update your protocols accordingly.
Currently COVID-19 is classified as a direct threat under EEOC guidance, so you can refuse entry to employees who have tested positive. This will not be considered discriminatory as you are obligated to protect older and immunocompromised employees. Prepare to offer accommodations, such as designated workspaces, for higher risk employees. “Treat those employees with as much empathy and flexibility as you can,” Alifanz says.
Finally, develop a plan for cleaning and disinfecting areas that have been exposed to COVID-19. “Have dedicated cleaners, especially in common spaces,” Alifanz says. To prevent further spreading, plan to space break times and shifts out as much as possible or try to operate with a limited crew.
Conduct a Risk Assessment
Before bringing employees back to work, identify and mitigate the biggest health risks. Check your HVAC and air quality filters, for example, to ensure that that your workspaces are properly ventilated. “We’ve seen the largest spread in meat-packing facilities or churches because these tend to be older buildings that don’t have good ventilation,” Alifanz points out.
Where possible, plan to modify workflows to keep employees separated. “Look at your common areas and workspaces,” Alifanz says. “Can you move people apart?” If people are facing each other try incorporating plexiglass dividers, or consider separating people by work zones to make contact tracing easier. Plan to provide personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, especially if you work in an older building with poor ventilation or if workers will be interacting with the public.
Try to consider every possible risk factor, from lunch breaks to accepting deliveries. “This is new for everyone,” Farrelly says. “Managers have to be specific and supportive.” For example, if your employees typically bring their own equipment, plan to set up a cleaning station where laptops or other items can be disinfected before entering the building.
Communicate Evolving Policies and Responsibilities
The key to a successful return-to-work plan is communication. Long before they arrive back at work, employees need to be briefed on changes to policies and workflows. Inform employees that policy changes are in place and must be enforced in order to protect them and their fellow workers from exposure.
Policies surrounding sick leave and time off are especially important to communicate. If employees are scared of losing their jobs, they’re much more likely to come to work even if they aren’t feeling well. “Communicating and demonstrating compassion are essential,” Alifanz says. Ask your employees to be transparent about potential illnesses. If someone in an employee’s household tests positive, for example, their supervisor needs to know.
Once employees are back in the facility, use signs to direct traffic and remind employees of new policies and workflows. Clearly mark stations where employees can go for symptom checks or to pick up hand sanitizer, masks and gloves. “Your employees have to understand that they are responsible for maintaining workplace health and safety,” Farrelly says.
And don't forget to join us for our July 8 webinar for more crucial insights into re-opening the office.