By Kimberly Daise
With the economy slowly opening and returning to its previous state, many businesses, offices, warehouses, etc. are starting to resume operations. But with the looming threat of the second wave of COVID infections arising, the big question here is whether your company has adequate and relevant safety measures to condone and prevent the spread of the virus among employees.
In compliance with the “General Duty” clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers are required to provide employees with a safe and healthy workplace free from recognized hazards that could cause potential death or serious harm. Employers are also required to adhere to occupational safety, health standards, and rules laid down by the legislation.
Therefore, to ensure a COVID free and safe working space for everyone, companies need to pay extra attention and adopt more stringent safe management measures to help protect their employees and the workplace. Thus, in this article, we will be introducing 5 methods companies can adopt to ensure a safer environment for everyone.
1. Minimize contact and socializing in large groups
We know that the pandemic spreads very quickly when there are large crowds and small enclosed areas, which brings us to the first method companies can adopt to curb the spread of the virus in the workplace. Companies can stagger the work and break hours of employees if it is necessary for them to return to the workplace. Staggering is an efficient method to limit and control the number of employees in the workplace at each interval, while reducing possible congregation of employees in all common spaces, such as entrances, exits, lobbies, canteens, and pantries.
For example, if the normal working hours consist of a time frame from 9 am to 6 pm, a new work roster could be as such:
• 8 am to 5 pm (40% of staff)
• 9 am to 6 pm (30% of staff)
• 10 am to 7 pm (30% of staff)
By and large, if the company can review their work processes and allow most of the employees to work from home, that would be the best option available due to the minimal contact and interaction with others. However, we understand that not all jobs are able to be done from the comforts of our own home. Hence, the staggering of work hours is an efficient way to reduce the number of employees in the workplace.
Continuing the topic of minimizing contact and interaction among employees, companies should try as much as possible to conduct all meetings virtually. Physical meetings between employees and contractors or suppliers should be minimized to reduce the risk of exposure to the disease. On top of that, all large-scale activities involving close and prolonged contact amongst participants such as exhibitions, roadshows, conferences, etc. should be deferred or canceled.
Additionally, companies should pay special attention and look out for employees who have pre-existing medical conditions or are pregnant as they would be more susceptible to the virus. These employees should be given priority to work from home, and if that is not possible in their current job position, they could be temporarily allocated to another role within the company that allows them to do so. After this phase passes, they could be redeployed to their previous position to ensure their safety in the workplace.
2. Educate and communicate regularly with your employees
Educating your employees is an important aspect to keep everyone on the same page. Every employee needs to know of the changes made to the workplace to ensure that they can fully comply to these new practices for optimal efficiency at work. Companies will not only need to educate their employees on the virus, but also how to protect themselves, and any changes made to the workplace. By placing emphasis on educating your employees on the virus, it gives them a better understanding of how the virus is spread, and what they can do to avoid contracting the virus. This also ensures that employees are more cooperative in the upcoming changes to workplace safety practices that may be implemented.
Firstly, when educating your employees about the virus, ensure that they at least know of the common symptoms, methods of virus transmission and subsequently, regularly update your employees on any recent news regarding the COVID situation in your country as and when possible. This can be done through blasting out mass emails, posting on the company blog, announcing on the company intranet, etc. This helps to dispel myths and rumors that employees may spread when they learn of anything through social media.
Secondly, regular communication to your employees should also include any updates in company policies and procedures relating to good hygiene, business travel, quarantines, safety precautions, working remotely (if possible), screening visitors, just to name a few topics to bring up to employees. Not only is this an effective method of demonstrating to your workforce that you are monitoring the situation, but it also helps in keeping employee morale up while ensuring a workplace safe from the virus.
Lastly, Employers can also provide employees with additional resources from validated sites such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), etc.
CDC has a detailed website available in English, Spanish, and simplified Chinese that provides the latest updates with regards to the Coronavirus. It also provides information about symptoms, prevention, treatment, geographic updates, and frequently asked questions. Employers can also download posters found on the CDC website, print them out and place them in areas employees frequent such as toilets and pantries to raise awareness. Similarly, the WHO’s website also provides useful materials for both employers and employees to reference and stay updated. OSHA on the other hand provides specific information and additional resources for employers on how to maintain workplace safety. They have general guidance practices for all workers and employers as well as for each individual industry, especially for those with increased risk of exposure such as Business Travelers, Airline Operations, Healthcare, and many more.
Educating and regularly communicating will shape the way employees perceive the company’s human resource practices, workplace safety measures, ability to handle the outbreak. In the event whereby a company does not communicate well regarding safe management practices in times like these, employees may deem the company as ill-prepared or uncaring towards the well-being of the employees, which could result in a greater number of unnecessary employee absences, ultimately affecting work productivity and efficiency in the workplace.
3. Reinforce good hygiene practices and safety precautions
Employers should remind employees to proactively take preventive measures and safety precautions to help reduce the risk of contracting or spreading the virus in the workplace. This includes frequent washing of hands, avoiding touching eyes, nose, or mouth, staying home when sick, etc. To facilitate the practice of these safety precautions, employers can come out with a list and put them up in places clearly visible to employees to remind them of these important practices.
The cleansing of workplaces can be strengthened by introducing the following practices:
Common spaces where there is high human contact should be regularly cleaned. In places where physical meetings are to be held or where meals are taken (Pantries, Canteens), tables should be disinfected between each meeting or seating. Machinery and equipment that is shared between different shifts or alternate teams should be cleaned and disinfected before they change hands. Frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, elevator buttons, phones, keyboards, machinery and equipment, workstations, etc. should also be regularly disinfected.
However, encouraging good hygiene practices does not only involve the employees. Employers should also review their cleaning operations to ensure stricter and more intensive cleaning processes are taking place.
In the interest of encouraging a safer and cleaner working environment, these points should also be observed. Firstly, the provision of cleaning agents such as liquid soap and toilet paper should always be readily available in all toilets and hand-wash stations. Secondly, disinfecting agents such as hand sanitizers should be installed at all points where human traffic stops within the workplace such as entrances, lift lobbies, reception areas, security booths, etc. Lastly, common spaces such as pantries, canteens, and meeting rooms should provide disinfectant sprays, paper towels, and wipes for employees to wipe down the surfaces before each use.
Some additional safety precautions employers should take into consideration include making it compulsory for employees to wear masks in the workplace, ensure that temporary or seasonal staff are taking their own precautionary measures before stepping into the work premises. It should also be actively encouraged to not come to work if you are displaying any of the COVID symptoms to err on the side of caution and prevent any potential spread of the virus. Additionally, it is advised by CDC for employers to send home any employees who seem to have any symptoms of an acute respiratory illness.
4. Quarantine potentially exposed employees, even if they do not exhibit symptoms
Employers should consider prohibiting or strictly limiting business travel and rescheduling the meet via an online conference instead unless necessary. As for traveling during a pandemic, the CDC has established a geographic risk stratification criterion to provide guidance for public health management decisions about potential travel-related exposure to the virus. Companies should immediately suspend non-essential business travel to Level 3 countries for an indefinite amount of time for now. If employees have already traveled to any Level 3 countries mentioned by the CDC, ensure that these employees strictly stay out of the workplace and do not come into contact with any other employees while serving a mandatory 14-day quarantine even if they show no symptoms upon returning to the country.
Employers should also consider postponing any business travel to Level 2 countries especially for employees who are older in age or have chronic medical conditions. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for every company due to the various operational needs and objectives. However, it would be best to suspend all travel-related business activity and convert them to video conferencing if possible as your employee’s health and safety should be the priority in times like these. Employees should also be advised not to make any personal travel plans during this crucial timeframe, but even so, if they end up making a trip out of the country, do follow-up and ensure that they adhere to the strict 14-day quarantine and seek medical help if any symptoms do show. Protecting the health and safety of the majority is very important in preventing any potential spreading of the virus within the workplace.
As an employer, you may need to decide whether certain employees require to be quarantined, leading to the issue of how to compensate them, especially for those who are unable to work remotely during the quarantine period. A general rule of thumb subjected to any contractual obligations that an employer may have states that employers are permitted to request employees use their paid time off, on the basis that these employees do not work during that time.
With regard to the issue of unionized employees, there may be a need to negotiate with the union over quarantine policies as the terms and conditions of their employment may be altered, including employee’s wages and work hours. Ultimately, the result depends on the collective bargaining agreement between both parties, and although the employer may have the right to send the employee home, these employees will still need to be paid according to the union-rights clause.
Every company will have its fair share of foreign employees, and in that case, the employer will need to comply with the laws of the employee’s country of origin. If your employees have already quarantined themselves abroad, you could explore the possibility of authorizing them to work remotely. On the flip side, if you have foreign national employees quarantined outside of the country, it might trigger other immigration issues.
A great way to show support towards employees would be to allow employees who expressed interest in self-quarantining to do so. This helps to protect them from exposure to the virus in the workplace. However, not every employer has this luxury, especially if they need to focus on keeping the business operating. As such, this is to bring to light to employers that employees are not entitled to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), sick leave, or other reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This is because there is no indication of any imminent danger of being exposed to the virus.
5. Implementing a detailed monitoring plan.
Employers need to establish a proper system to implement the above safe management measures to provide a safe working environment while minimizing any risk of virus outbreaks among employees. Ensuring that these measures are implemented in a sustainable manner for as long as necessary is vital during this period. Here is how your company can do so.
Firstly, implementing a detailed monitoring plan helps to ensure compliance with the safe management measures put in place as well as the timely resolution of any outstanding issues that may arise.
Secondly, employers can appoint Safe Management Officers (SMO) from the manpower under the Operations, Logistics, or Human Resources department. The main role of these officers is to assist in the implementation, coordination, and monitoring of the system of the added measures put into action in the workplace. Employers will also need to provide these SMOs with adequate instructions, information, and supervision necessary for them to fulfill their duties as it will be a relatively new job scope for these employees.
The main duties carried out by these officers will include:
• Coordinating the implementation of these safety measures in the workplace:
This includes identifying relevant risks that may arise in the workplace, recommending various solutions, and more efficient practices, assisting in the implementation of measures to mitigate risks that comes with a potentially asymptomatic employee coming to work, etc. It also includes communicating, informing, and educating the employees of the updated measures in the workplace.
• Conducting inspections and checks
These officers always need to ensure compliance to prevent any risks of the potential spread of the virus within the workplace. Any non-compliance in the working environment should be reported and documented. There will be times when problematic employees do not comply with certain aspects of the safety measures such as not wearing a mask, not practicing, or adhering to stringent personal hygiene practices, etc.
• Rectify and non-compliance issues
Issues such as running out of toilet paper or sanitation products in certain areas of the workplace found during the inspections and checks should be brought to the relevant staffs’ attention immediately. It is important to reduce the lag time between replenishing of sanitation products to maintain an optimal level of hygiene and cleanliness in the working environment.
• Monitor and keep records of inspections, checks and corrected actions, etc.
Every inspection, check, corrected actions, modifications to measures put in place, etc. should be recorded such that it is readily available upon request if needed for a government inspection or for other uses. Furthermore, these records would serve well in the analysis of the effectiveness and usefulness of the practices enforced in the workplace.
This novel coronavirus continues to expand and spread rapidly. Thus, it is imperative for all employers to communicate regularly with your employees, reinforce health and safety precautions, keep up to date on the latest news and information about the virus, plan ahead
and prepare for any emergencies.
With these added measures communicated and explained to employees, the workplace is going to become a safer environment for everyone to work in. At the same time, with the support from employees playing their part and adhering to the new work safety practices put in place, we can expect a more vigilant community in the quest towards preventing the spread of the virus and stepping up workplace safety.
For employers who do not already have a workplace safety management plan, we recommend that you draft and implement one immediately. If you are worried or have any queries with regards to worker’s compensation in situations like these, visit our site linked here https://iretiworkerscomp.com/get-a-quote/ to get a quote.
Coronavirus: 10 Steps US Employers Should Take to Maintain a Safe Workplace in the Face of a Public Health Emergency: Perspectives & Events: Mayer Brown. (n.d.). Retrieved September 02, 2020, from https://www.mayerbrown.com/en/perspectives-events/publications/2020/03/coronavirus-10-steps-us-employers-should-take-to-maintain-a-safe-workplace-in-the-face-of-a-public-health-emergency
Requirements for Safe Management Measures at the workplace. (n.d.). Retrieved September 02, 2020, from https://www.mom.gov.sg/covid-19/requirements-for-safe-management-measures
Contributing writer: Shania Wong (thewunderinglab)