As COVID-19 cases drop, many offices are reopening. However, some workers are uneasy about returning to the office. 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 spread 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 travel to the office two weeks before getting sick.
Thus, the onus is on employers to protect workers and help them feel confident in returning to the office. This article provides employers with actionable tips to help business owners navigate the return-to-work transition.
1) Assess Employees Risk Exposure to COVID-19
Build a team to identify the exposure risk of each employee or groups of employees. Identify individual job roles in your workplace and determine how their worksite and job tasks may impact their exposure 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 contact with their coworkers and members of the public. Telecommuters and office workers are examples of low-risk roles.
- Medium Risk: Medium risk jobs and tasks require 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 perform 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 Policies to Curb the Spread of COVID-19
Next, use the risk assessment results to develop and implement policies to curb the emergence of COVID-19. Otherwise, you’ll have to use contract tracing personnel to determine who visited the office and deep clean 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 to stay six feet apart and maximum occupancy signs at exits and entrances.
Provide your workers with soap, water, and paper towels if hand sanitizer when possible. 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.
Implement Appropriate Safety Controls
Appropriate engineering controls to reduce the spread 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 include staggering work shifts, limiting in-person meetings, and reducing break room capacity, among others.
Identify and Isolate 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 allows employers to recall essential workers whose presence in the office is crucial for business operations. At the same time, it provides employers time 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:
COVID Reopening: Phase 1
Limit the number of people who return to the office. Extend the telework option to the majority of non-essential staff and others with underlying health conditions. Businesses should accommodate workers with family members at elevated risk of severe disease.
COVID Reopening: Phase 2
Continue to allow workers to work remotely where possible, but enable business traveling for non-essential staff. More people might be allowed in the office, but with strict social distancing measures. Accommodate vulnerable workers as they were in Phase 1.
COVID Reopening: Phase 3
Allow all 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 from implementing the above-mentioned 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 prefer.
- 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 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 after COVID-19 closures?
Health experts tell us 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 of COVID-19?
Ensure 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 work in crowded spaces or poorly ventilated areas. Ensure soap and water or sanitizer with 60% alcohol is readily available at all times.
Returning to the Office After COVID Conclusion
With the vaccination rate picking up, 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 steps to protect their workers and ensure reopening goes smoothly.