A pandemic…any pandemic…is a slow-moving disaster. Many of us are familiar with the disaster process, but historically in very different circumstances, such as hurricanes, earthquakes and even public unrest. A pandemic is a completely different animal, and with it come completely new implications and concerns. Employers must accept this reality, and plan with specific precautions and considerations in mind.
During more typical disasters or crises, we may have been involved with our company’s incident command structures, driven by a designated management team. If this team exists, it should be meeting now and daily until thorough plans to reopen have been created. And this team should continue to meet until the crisis is over. If you don’t have a team, create one. And keep in mind…this fall and winter could bring new challenges from the virus Sars-Co-V2 (COVID 19).
Re-opening will depend on many factors. Some industries, such as health care, groceries and other essential services, are open and have never closed. Others, like travel, hospitality, performing arts and entertainment, are slower to re-open. Some U.S. local governments are aggressively opening, while others are cautious to reopen. Some cities have little public transportation; others have mass transit. The risk of exposure varies by geography. Your organization’s leaders may have their own ideas about the reopening process. There are a lot of external variables to consider.
The most important priority consideration currently is to reduce exposure to COVID-19. How do you do that?
Many companies have administrative staff that are already working remotely. If this is working well, continue to do so. Professionals and managers may require some workplace presence. If so, these individuals should use private offices or workplaces to implement physical distancing and masking while continuing to use virtual platforms for meetings, even when in the same building.
For those who must work in unprotected spaces or have direct public or patient contact, face coverings, such as masks and face shields, and glasses are a must, as are social distancing and the disinfecting of surfaces. The key is to protect your face. Until the prevalence of the disease in the community and the organization is low or non-existent, these precautions and protections cannot be relaxed.
Vaccines, effective medications and widespread use of anti-viral immunoglobulin are still months away. Meanwhile, engineering controls, such as hands-free light switches and door openers, plexiglass widows for interactions with customers, and such administrative controls as signage and PA systems to remind workers and customers of handwashing, sanitizing and social distancing should be implemented. The limiting of workers/shoppers allowed into a workspace, as well as the use of staggered entrance and exiting plans, will avoid crowds. Also, consider staggering lunch and break times.
So far, the largest part of our exposure control response has been through personal protection with masks, social distancing, hand sanitization and other environmental barriers, largely because of the lack of medical (treatment) and preventive (vaccine) solutions. Therefore, the major responsibility of at least one member of the planning team will be to source and supply these protective items.
Your human resources staff will need guidance concerning legislation, such as HIPPA, ADA, EEOC, and the various executive orders at the state level. Also, note that if you have a policy requiring a doctor’s note to justify employee absence for COVID-19, understand that it may be difficult to impossible for employees to comply at this time. So, consider waiving this requirement for now.
Return to work screening must be considered.
• Is it appropriate to screen for temperatures?
• Should you distribute symptom questionnaires to employees?
And once back in the workplace, you need to have a plan that will identify every symptomatic worker and ensure that they are immediately isolated from other workers and sent home for at least 14 days from the onset of symptoms. They should contact their local health care provider for further care and testing before returning to work. A plan must be in place to ensure that this happens and clearly identifies what “returning to work after illness” requires.
A plan also is needed to determine if periodic testing is required for asymptomatic but high-risk employees. And a thorough contact tracing procedure will be necessary if any employee is found to be positive for COVID-19.
Lastly, a process of data tracking is necessary to track employee health status, as that will change over time.
Finally, we need to talk about overall health. After two or more months of being in self-isolation, many will be happy to return to work. However, others will have taken on additional responsibilities at home, such as child care and education.
In the absence of child care and schools to attend, many employees may not be able to return to work. Others will be anxious, depressed or suffering relapse from substance abuse. Carefully consider these situations in advance, and plan for them.
Your leadership must be calm, demonstrate compassion and communicate relentlessly, not only about expectations for personal protection procedures but also for self-care during this crisis. Encouragement and even testimonials about the use of EAP counsellors and services within your health care plans will be critical. We know these services have been underutilized during this crisis, and this is the time when we need to positively encourage their use. So, promote them!
• Establish an Incident Command Team with leadership oversight and support to prepare for and manage COVID-19;
• Protect your workers and clients using administrative, engineering and personal protection controls;
• Be prepared to deal effectively with physical, mental and social health issues that will come up as your employees return to work;
• Be clear on regulations, guidance from health authorities, and any legal liabilities.
• Monitor, with clear measures, your COVID-19 Relaunch Plans to ensure that the deliverables are occurring on an ongoing and consistent basis.