Getting back to work safely

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While the debate goes on as to when things might get back to normal, one thing is for certain: the risk of COVID-19 is not likely going away anytime soon. The question is, “Can we afford to stay at home forever?” But you don’t need to be a talking head on the nightly news to know that at some point we need to get back to work. The next question is, “How do we do that safely?”

In 2007, the U.S. Department of Labor issued “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic,” in which they described it as a worldwide outbreak of a new strain of virus that can spread from person to person. It touched upon the fact that some people might not have natural immunity to the new strain. That a vaccine in not yet widely available. That pandemics vary from a bad flu season to a severe pandemic that leads to high levels of illness, death, social disruption and economic loss. And it’s hard to predict when they will occur and whether they will be mild or severe.

Does this sound familiar 13 years later?

That report is describing what we are going through right now as a severe pandemic. The only difference is how we are responding. At no time in history have such aggressive measures been used to keep this silent killer from moving from person to person. Businesses have been ordered closed and most of us are required to stay at home unless you are considered an essential worker. This not only involves the workplace but also our homes as we carry the virus from home to work and work to home. That being said, we are in the first battle in our war against COVID-19 where the goal is not to overwhelm our health care systems. As of today, it appears we have won that battle or at least we know how to do it. Take New York, for example, the epicenter of the breakout. Additional hospital beds were built, additional medical equipment like ventilators were acquired, and now that the peak has passed, fewer people need care. This means it’s time to move to the next step to re-open business and get back to work.

Since there is no vaccine readily available, jumpstarting our economy safely will require a new plan, one designed and built specifically for COVID-19. This will be a critical step in keeping workers healthy and safe as they return to work. The purpose of this plan is to outline the steps that every employer and employee can take to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19. The plan describes how to prevent worker exposure to coronavirus, the protective measures to be taken on the jobsite, the personal protective equipment and work practice controls to be used, the cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and what to do if a worker becomes sick.

Like any good safety plan, it should include the following:

  • A company statement where senior leaders express their commitment that the health and safety of their employees is given serious attention, thus laying the groundwork to cascade this message down from top management to everyone in the organization.
  • Responsibilities of managers and supervisors to set a good example by following this plan at all times and to encourage this same behavior from all employees.
  • Responsibilities of employees to help with prevention efforts while at work by following company instituted housekeeping, social distancing and other best practices at the workplace. Employees are expected to report to their managers or supervisors if they are experiencing signs or symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Worksite protective measures requiring any employee/visitor showing symptoms of COVID-19 will be asked to leave the workplace and return home, limiting the number of people at meetings, having meetings by phone or video conference, requiring social distancing and staggering breaks to reduce the number of people together at one time.
  • Worksite cleaning and disinfecting by instituting regular housekeeping practices, which includes cleaning and disinfecting frequently used tools and equipment, and other elements of the work environment, wherever possible.
  • Worksite exposure situations with protocols for employees exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, employees testing positive for COVID-19, and employees having close contact with a tested positive COVID-19 individual.

A word of caution: it’s easy to single focus on “the risk of the day” like COVID-19, but it’s not the only hazard we face in the workplace. We can’t forget about falls, amputation, electrocution or getting caught in a machine. According to the philosophy of injury prevention, the employer is primarily responsible for ensuring a safe and healthy work environment. Organizations with effective safety cultures show commitment that health and safety are at least as important as productivity and quality. Having a plan to safely get back to work is the not only good risk management approach, but also the right thing to do.

Randy Boss is a Certified Risk Architect at Ottawa Kent in Jenison. As a Risk Architect, he designs, builds and implements risk management and insurance plans for middle market companies in the areas of safety, work comp, human resources, property/casualty and benefits. He has over 40 years’ experience and has been at Ottawa Kent for 38 years. He is the co-founder of emergeapps.com, web apps for insurance agents to share with employers. He can be reached at rboss@ottawakent.com.

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