12 Ways to Help Employees Return to Work Safely

by Brad Hadfield
12 Ways to Help Employees Return to Work Safely

From March to June, many Americans sheltered in place to protect themselves and help slow the spread of coronavirus. Now, following months of quarantine, many employees are returning to work or preparing to return to work. Unfortunately, with COVID-19 resurging in many parts of the country, many are not all that happy about it. 

A Washington Post poll of more than 8,000 adults reveals that nearly 6 in 10 Americans working outside their home are concerned about contracting COVID-19 and infecting other members of their household. Another survey of American workers by PwC asked workers what employers could do to make them feel comfortable returning to work. Here were the responses:

How to Get Employees Back to Work Safely

As a Human Resources leader or an Operations Manager, it’s important to create safety protocols to put employees and customers at ease, and to protect them (and others they may come into contact with) from the sometimes devastating or deadly effects of COVID-19. Here are 12 things you can do to prepare for your employees returning to work.

1. Conduct a COVID-19 Hazard Assessment

A hazard assessment involves identifying when, where, and how employees are most likely to be exposed to coronavirus during the course of their job duties and then setting up controls or requiring personal protective equipment (PPE) for these jobs. Considerations include exposure to members of the public such as visitors, customers, and clients, and those whose job requires they work closely with others making social distancing difficult or impossible. 

2. Provide Hygiene Essentials

Be sure that soap, water, and paper towels are always available in restrooms, and have hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol) easily accessible throughout your workplace (you might consider installing touchless hand sanitation stations in potential COVID-19 hotspots, such as next to elevators, in oft-frequented doorways, and in common spaces such as cafeterias). To further encourage COVID-19 workplace safety, employers should also provide disposable disinfecting wipes at no cost to employees so they can wipe down commonly used surfaces such as desks, keyboards, doorknobs, cash registers, and other tools or equipment before each use.

3. Frequently Clean and Disinfect Surfaces

Whether you hire additional cleaning staff or bump up the custodial staffs’ hours, frequent surface cleaning can help stop the spread of COVID-19. Be sure cleaners wear gloves and use soap and water before disinfecting surfaces. You’ll also want to check that they’re using EPA-approved products proven to eliminate COVID-19.

4. Require Social Distancing

Except for those positions requiring close contact that we addressed in Tip #1, insist that everyone maintain six feet of distance. To ensure the feasibility of this rule, consider the following:

  • Limiting occupancy of areas and rooms to a number that can safely accommodate social distancing. ƒ 
  • Demarcating flooring in six-feet increments to indicate a safe standing distance in areas where people tend to congregate or form lines, such as restrooms, breakrooms, check-out lines, etc. ƒ 
  • Posting directional signs in hallways or aisles where width limits social distancing.
  • Implementing flexible work hours to reduce the number of people working together at one time (e.g., rotating or staggering shifts).
  • Adjusting your business practices to reduce close contact with customers, such as using delivery or drive-through service, curbside pickup, online shopping, etc.
  • Creating physical barriers between employees such as glass partitions on desks, etc.
  • Using videoconferencing or teleconferencing for work-related meetings; if that’s not an option, holding meetings in open, well-ventilated spaces (preferably outdoors).

5. Conduct Health Monitoring

Before returning to work, a COVID-19 test can be made mandatory for all employees. Then, you may consider daily health checks, such as temperature screening. This can be conducted on employees before they enter the workplace, in accordance with state and local public health authorities. If someone has COVID-19 symptoms or a fever, they should be sent home until they’ve been cleared for going back to work through testing. Employers should also have a plan in place if an employee who has been in the office tests positive, such as temporarily shutting down for a deep cleaning, performing contact tracing, and notifying employees.

6. Require or Recommend Face Masks

The CDC has called on all Americans to wear a cloth face mask to protect against coronavirus and slow its spread. Depending on state or local laws, employers should require or strongly recommend that employees wear masks, and turn away visitors and customers who refuse. One of the easiest ways to ensure employees wear them is to provide them. Not only will face masks help keep employees safe, but it will also help reduce absenteeism due to sickness and reduce the likelihood of reclosing due to COVID-19 cases. It’s important to note, however, that wearing a cloth face covering does not replace the need to practice social distancing.

7. Post COVID-19 Workplace Safety Reminders

Place reminder posters that encourage social distancing, hand hygiene, face coverings, and other methods of safety. These should be posted at the entrance of your workplace and in other areas where they are likely to be seen. Be sure to include signs for non-English speakers if necessary.

8. Require Sick Employees to Stay Home

Ask employees to evaluate themselves for signs or symptoms of COVID-19 before coming to work; if they believe they are sick, they should stay home, inform their supervisor, and not return to work until they’ve met the criteria to stop home isolation. If you don’t have a sick leave policy, it will be necessary to create a non-punitive “emergency sick leave” policy to ensure sick employees stay home rather than come to work ill for fear that they will lose their job or paycheck. Employees should also be advised to stay quarantined at home if someone they live with has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

9. Protect Higher-Risk Employees

According to the CDC, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions are more at risk for contracting COVID-19 (and more likely to suffer serious consequences if they do get it). Rather than require a return to the office or job site, ensure their safety by offering remote work options. If working from home isn’t an option, consider adjusting their work duties so that they have less contact with other people.

10. Improve Your Ventilation System

This will require the knowledge of an expert, but you can maintain a healthier environment by adjusting your workplace ventilation controls. Some adjustments a professional can make include increasing ventilation rates, increasing outdoor air ventilation, reducing air recirculation, frequently changing air filters, and more.

11. Limit Employee Travel

Today, a lot of work that used to require travel can be conducted through video conferencing. Prohibit non-essential work travel and limit essential travel as much as possible. For those that do travel, be sure to check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations about pre- and post-travel procedures and what to do if an employee contracts COVID-19 while on the road. 

12. Provide Employee Training

While many people understand the basics of COVID-19 safety, reminders and a review of your company policy are critical to keep everyone on the same page. Some items for review may include:

  • The signs, symptoms, and risk factors associated with COVID-19
  • How to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at work.
  • New policies or procedures related to the coronavirus, such as cleaning and disinfecting, social distancing, mask requirement, work schedules, etc.
  • Discouraging employees from using each other’s phones, desks, tools, etc.
  • Discouraging handshaking and other physical greetings.
  • Demonstrating how to properly wear and care for a face mask.
  • Ensuring employees that no adverse action will be taken if they raise workplace safety and health concerns.

Employees Preparing to Return to Work?

Returning to work after COVID-19 cases have seen upticks in numerous states is a frightening prospect for many workers. Even those living in states where the virus appears to be on the downswing rightly have concerns; they may be in high-risk categories or may fear contracting it and bringing it home to family members. By creating and enforcing COVID-19 workplace safety protocols, you can bring employees back to work and help keep them safe. For more information about returning to work, check out this guide by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). 
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1 comment

Katrina Rubin September 7, 2020 - 12:53 pm

Well thought out solutions to face this challenge!

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