As areas of the country may be reopening, many companies are thinking about how to mitigate the risk of employees transmitting COVID-19 in the workplace. While some businesses may find themselves forced to radically change numerous aspects of their facilities, others may only need to make relatively simple improvements to minimize the potential for the virus to spread.
As part of their efforts, companies will need to incorporate regulatory guidance, as outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, in addition to best practices as they become known. Companies must also consider how to manage employee expectations and instill confidence in the organization’s ability to lessen the potential for infection, a process that's been documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While making decisions on how to protect their workforce, organizations should not lose sight of the primary challenge associated with the virus, that it is mainly spread from person-to-person. Employers need to first and foremost look at enabling social distancing. The CDC also stresses the need to focus on employees' emotional states and the need to make preventive measures visible to help build confidence in the company's ability to mitigate the potential for the virus to spread.
Since individual states can create their own phased approach to reopening, the path that businesses pursue to resume their operations will vary accordingly. As a state progresses from one phase to another, the number of employees who can return to the workplace increases. So what can businesses do to make their workplace safe for employees as they return from lockdown?
Putting the Fundamentals in Place
Given that the virus primarily transmits via human-to-human contact, prevention depends on keeping such interactions to a minimum. Furthermore, should the needs of the business require some form of interaction, such as meeting with customers, protections must be in place to safeguard all parties. Performing temperature-screening before anyone enters the facility, the placement of anti-bacterial liquid at entrance points and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks are just a few of the measures companies can put in place to potentially limit the impact of the virus.
To help with social distancing, organizations can implement simple things like adding a strip of tape across a table in a cafeteria and reducing the number of available chairs to ensure employees maintain the right distance and positioning, and create the right flow within a facility. Using signage, including floor decals and directional tape, can help redirect traffic within the workplace to minimize the potential for the virus to transmit. This is particularly important for facilities that create pinch points that result in employees being closer than six feet.
In high-traffic areas, such as those involving customer contact, a sneeze guard, which is an acrylic or glass sheet placed between individuals, can limit the droplets transmitted from person to person and the potential for virus transmission. In larger areas, the volume of space between employees should be increased, and some companies may elect to use a physical barrier to enforce separation.
Increasing the Frequency, Scope and Method Used to Clean
To minimize transmission risk of the virus via surface contact, a company may choose to increase the scope of its cleaning effort, as well as the frequency of high-touch surfaces. While most facilities are cleaned in the evening to minimize the potential to interfere with employees, a company may decide to shift some of its evening resources to the daytime to ensure surfaces are cleaned throughout the work day. In a similar vein, businesses should embrace touchless technology, such as the use of touchless bathroom fixtures. For high-traffic areas, the use of foot-operated door handles and hands-free door pulls may become widespread.
In addition to increasing the number of cleaning cycles high-touch areas receive, placing wipe dispensers and hand sanitizer in high-traffic areas allows businesses to enlist users of those spaces in the cleaning effort. By supplementing existing cleaning protocols with crowdsourced cleaning of communal spaces and shared workstations—meaning employees clean the space before and after gathering—companies are reinforcing “in the moment” cleaning cycles, further reducing exposure risk.
While cleaning can provide employees with clear and compelling evidence of a company’s commitment to limiting the spread, behind the scenes, there will likely be an increased focus on improving indoor air quality. According to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), when companies pay more attention to the efficiency and effectiveness for their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, they can reduce airborne exposure to the virus. Consequently, given the potential to capture meaningful and sustainable improvements in air quality, with the potential to limit the virus' transmission over time, many businesses may elect to upgrade their filtration systems.
While many of the changes and enhancements detailed here can play a role in limiting human-to-human transmission of the virus, there’s no substitute for washing hands frequently and following the guidance on how to prevent infections associated with each phase of the reopening, including maintaining social distance, wearing face masks and staying home at the first sign that symptoms appear.
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