Simple Strategies to Curb COVID-19 Transmission in the Workplace

2020 has been a year of uncertainty and trepidation, with unending reports of coronavirus cases and deaths across the globe. The coronavirus pandemic shut down the global economy and dealt a heavy blow to many businesses. While employers have asked their workers to resume amid this global health crisis, the anxiety among workers remains palpable, and they’re concerned about their safety at the workplace.

COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is a highly infectious disease that is spread mainly from person-to-person through respiratory droplets released when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even talks. When these droplets land - either directly or indirectly - in your mouth or nose, you may get the infection. Further, if you touch surfaces contaminated with these droplets, and then you touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, you could also contract the virus.

Many businesses shuttered and asked their workers to work from home as a result of the resultant health restrictions. But now that the offices are gradually reopening their doors, employers have to make some changes to safeguard their workers’ health - as the risk of infection heightens in indoor settings where social distancing may be impracticable. Here are simple strategies to pull this off.

Implement Basic Infection Control Measures

A simple, inexpensive strategy of protecting your workers is to implement basic public health measures in the workplace. Workplace leaders, managers, and supervisors should double down on the basic hygiene practices that can prevent the person-to-person spread of the virus.

First is the good old handwashing. Provide soaps and running water in several locations in the office, especially entry points, and promote frequent and thorough hand washing. If soap and running water are not readily available, provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol, placed at strategic positions in the office.

As part of basic infection control, also implement regular disinfection and cleaning of surfaces and equipment in the worksite. Implement workplace cleaning twice daily - before workers resume for the day and when they leave. Select only cleaning products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which are highly effective against SARS-CoV-2. 

Managers should also remind their workers about respiratory etiquette via instant messaging, group emails, or signages placed at strategic points in the office. The information should include the use of tissue to cover one’s mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, with immediate disposal of the tissue in the nearest receptacle after use. Tissues and no-touch trash receptacles should be available to ensure respiratory hygiene.

Further, provide face masks for all workers and encourage its use where maintaining social distance may be impossible. Employers could also develop policies that prohibit visitors or customers from entering the worksite without using a face covering.

Develop Policies for COVID-19 Case Identification

If a worker develops some of the signs and symptoms of COVID-19, what would be your next line of action?

Early detection and isolation of potentially infected workers is a crucial part of curbing COVID-19 transmission in the workplace. Employers should develop procedures to promptly identify and isolate high-risk workers to protect others at the worksite. Such policies may include routine health checks to screen workers for fever and other symptoms of COVID-19, or health surveillance systems, where workers report when they are sick.

If an employee develops signs and symptoms of the infection, there should be policies in place for immediate isolation and testing of the employee. You may designate an isolated area with closable doors to keep potentially infected employees until health officials can safely evacuate them from the worksite.

If the employee tests positive for COVID-19, trained personnel should communicate with employees and customers who had contact with the infected worker and ask them to isolate and get tested. Contact-tracing apps may be invaluable to track contacts of infected workers.

For some employers, routine testing may be necessary to keep track of potential sources of the contagion and isolate them early, even before they develop symptoms. This testing strategy may apply to some work settings such as critical infrastructure or high-density work environments where workers have constant physical interactions with one another and where social distancing may be impracticable.

Generally, employers should encourage sick employees to stay home until they feel better. However, employers do not need to require a negative COVID-19 test report or a doctor’s note before the employee can return to work.

Redesign the Workplace

Working amid the coronavirus pandemic may induce changes to workplace structure and work patterns that limit workers’ risk of contracting the infection.

In open offices, for instance, space work stations at a distance of at least 1 meter from each other or, in cases where spacing workstations may be unworkable, you can separate workstations with transparent plexiglasses to protect workers from others’ respiratory droplets. 

As much as possible, also, interactions should be virtual. Unnecessary physical meetings may be canceled or held virtually. If inevitable, physical gatherings should factor in social distancing recommendations with participants sitting at a distance of at least 1 meter from one another.

Promoting flexibility at the workplace may also necessitate hybrid work patterns. Consider establishing alternating onsite/remote work shifts or shorter work hours to limit employees’ risk of infection. Where possible, some employees may operate remotely to reduce the number of employees who work onsite.

With the risk of contagion much higher in indoor settings, adequate ventilation is crucial to protecting workers. Employers should consider installing high-efficiency air filters and increase ventilation rates in the work environment. In isolation rooms or testing sites, where the viral load is high, employers should install specialized negative pressure ventilation that rids the air of the viral particles. And where possible, windows should be wide open.

Bottom Line

A lot of uncertainties and anxieties have marked the workplace for much of the year. Businesses are beginning to reopen, and tensions are high. Therefore, employers must consider short-term and long-term strategies to safeguard the workplace and protect workers amid this global health threat.