Some workers are uneasy with the idea of returning to the office after COVID-19 shutdowns. They are unsure whether their workplace has the necessary health and safety protocols to minimize their exposure to COVID-19. Evidence from the virus’s previous waves suggests their doubts aren’t misplaced.
Employees who regularly commuted to work over the past year were twice as likely to test positive for COVID-19 than their colleagues who tested negative. The former group was also more likely to have traveled to the office two weeks before getting sick.
Thus, the onus is on employers to take the necessary steps to convince their workers that returning to the office after COVID-19 shutdowns won’t endanger their health. This article contains actionable tips to help business owners smoothen the return-to-work transition.
1) Assess Employees Risk Exposure to COVID-19
Build a team to identify the exposure of your employees to the virus. Identify individual job roles in your workplace and try to determine how their worksite and job task may or may not expose your workers to COVID-19. Then quantify their job roles as either low risk, medium risk, or high risk based on the following criteria:
- Low Risk: Low-risk jobs and tasks don’t require your employees to come into occupational contact with their coworkers and members of the public. Telecommuters and office workers are examples of low-risk roles.
- Medium Risk: Medium risks jobs and tasks require your employees to come into close or frequent occupational contact with people who might be infected but aren’t suspected of having COVID-19. Examples include teachers and restaurant servers.
- High Risk: High-risk jobs and tasks have a high potential of workers coming into contact with people infected with COVID-19 or suspected of having it. Ambulance drivers and healthcare transport personnel are examples of high-risk roles.
Once you have carried out the risk assessment, provide high-risk workers with PPEs and sanitizers with 60% alcohol. Also, give all the workers virtual training on how to reduce their exposure to the virus.
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2) Develop and Implement Policies to Curb the Emergence of COVID-19
The next step involves using the risk assessment results to develop and implement policies that would curb the emergence of COVID-19. Otherwise, you’ll need to begin contract tracing personnel who visited the office and deep cleaning the premises if the virus starts spreading.
If these measures cannot stem the spread of the virus, you may have no choice but to shut the worksite temporarily. Given such high stakes, you may want to consider outsourcing your HR department and getting professional help in this area. In addition, here are a few policies organizations can implement to curb the emergence of SARS-COVID-19:
The CDC guidelines recommend people stay six feet apart for COVID-19 social distancing. Businesses can follow this guideline by demarcating flooring in six-foot zones in all those areas where employees, customers, or visitors typically come together. They can also post signage reminding everyone of the need to stay six feet apart and maximum occupancy signs at exits and entrances.
Provide your workers with soap and water with a paper towel if hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol isn’t available. However, if water and soap aren’t available, you’ll need to provide hand sanitizer. Identify areas that attract high foot traffic and ensure they’re thoroughly cleaned and disinfected using EPA-registered disinfectants.
Implementation of Appropriate Controls
Appropriate engineering controls to curb the emergence of COVID 19 in the workplace include shields/physical barriers to separate workers and enhanced ventilation to reduce the concentration of the virus in the indoor air. Administrative controls, meanwhile, could involve staggering work shifts, eschewing in-person meetings, limiting break room capacity, among others.
Identification and Isolation of Sick Employees
The CDC recommends making visual inspections of employees to look for signs of COVID-19, which may include difficulty performing routine tasks, flushed cheeks, running nose, and inappropriate sweating at ambient temperatures. Use non-contact thermometers to check suspected employees and make sure the screener is wearing gloves, masks, and washes their hands after performing the screening.
3) Reopen in Phases
Reopening the worksite in phases would allow employers to recall essential workers whose presence in the office is crucial for business operations. At the same time, it would give businesses the window to prepare and enact robust health and safety protocols for when most of their workforce would return to the worksite.
Here’s how to safely reopen after COVID-19 in phases:
Businesses might limit the number of people who could return to the office. They should extend the telework option to the majority of non-essential staff and others with underlying health conditions. Businesses should also accommodate workers with family members at elevated risk of severe disease.
Businesses could allow workers to work remotely where possible, but they could enable business traveling for non-essential staff. More people might be allowed in the office too, but with strict social distancing measures. Accommodate vulnerable workers as they were in Phase 1.
Businesses could allow all the staff to return to work sites, depending on the prevalent outbreak conditions and the percentage of the workforce vaccinated. Vulnerable workers, who might have received both vaccine shots by then, could also be recalled to the office.
4) Maintain Healthy Business Operations
Businesses mustn’t let their guard down after safely reopening after COVID-19. Doing so could reverse the gains they might have made from implementing the abovementioned tips, taking the situation back to square one.
Here’s how businesses can maintain healthy operations after the COVID-19 office opening:
- Keep meetings outside the office: Take advantage of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, or other video conferencing software.
- Enact flexible work policies: Allow employees with a sick family member or those with children at home due to school closures to work from home.
- Take special care of vulnerable workers: Assign high-risk workers duties that minimize contact with coworkers and customers if they have no problem with it.
- Clearly communicate policies to fight COVID-19: Make sure your workers, customers, on-site visitors, and contractors are aware of the new guidelines to stem the spread of the virus.
- Stay on top of your cleaning and disinfection routine: Ensure that frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs are cleaned and disinfected daily. Ensure PPE availability at all times for your janitorial workforce
Frequently Asked Questions
When is it safe for my employees to return to work?
Health experts tell us that it’s safe for employees to return to work after their employer has enacted the latest governmental guidance. That may involve adequate social distancing measures, staggering work hours to minimize the risk of exposure, improved office ventilation, reconfiguration of common areas and workplaces, and enhanced workplace cleaning and sanitation measures.
How to ensure your employees feel safe returning to work after COVID-19 closures?
Implement the suggestions given above and communicate to your employees the steps you have taken to safeguard their health and wellbeing once they’re back at the office. Show them with your actions that you have done all you could to make the worksite as safe as possible.
How can you protect your staff and others and slow the spread?
Ensure that your staff stays six feet apart at all times. Try to convince them to wear a mask when indoors and get a COVID 19 vaccine. Make sure they don’t have to work in crowded spaces and poorly ventilated areas. Ensure the provision of soap and water or sanitizer with 60% alcohol in the office.
With the vaccination rate picking up, more and more workers are returning to the office after COVID-19 shutdowns. Some are worried they’re putting their health in danger by doing so. As such, employers have a moral responsibility to take the steps that would save their workers from being needlessly exposed to the virus.