Well into the second wave of infections, EHS professionals have had time to evaluate safety measures introduced over the past months and consider how effective they have been at minimising the spread of the virus in the workplace.
With the added advantage of hindsight and experience, we should be now improving and streamlining a system that’s already in place.
The most recent government regulations have generally been aimed as a short-term ‘circuit-breaker’ before Christmas, so now is the time to take a hard look at your existing safety measures and identify what is missing.
Here are seven questions to help you prepare for the return to work.
1. How have you identified risk hotspots in your business?
The first step in a safety plan is to identify existing hazards. Areas that did not pose a risk before might have become hazardous for virus transmission.
Therefore, it is time to review your workplace with new eyes.
An easy way of identifying hazards is by seeing them. In that respect, OSHA recommends walkarounds as an efficient tool.
However, instead of reviewing the effectiveness of existing safety programs, you will now be exploring new indicators prior to normal operations returning.
Questions you should ask yourself while conducting a SARS-CoV-2 control walkaround should include:
- Where are the high traffic spots where crowding may occur?
- Which areas are too narrow to allow physical distancing during circulation?
- What areas/objects will be touched more frequently by employees?
- What distance is between desks right now? Does it respect safety guidelines?
The information gathered during this exercise should be used in a Risk Assessment, a formal way to document hazards and put controls in place.
2. How have you ensured physical distancing?
During the previous exercise it is likely you will have identified several bottlenecks and high traffic areas in your workplace that could encourage close contact between people.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, many organizations have implemented the following solutions:
- Separated desks by 6ft
- Staggered shifts to distribute employees
- All non-essential staff working from home
In China, when companies returned to work, they were only allowed to have 50% of their staff in at the same time and had to keep desks 6-feet apart. Employees got food delivered to their desks rather than visiting the cafeteria for their lunch break.
During your walkthrough you will likely also come across high traffic areas like the foyer, the kitchen or the lift.
It is harder to limit people’s movement when they are not static, and here you will rely a lot more on your staff’s training and willingness to abide by the rules.
Your goal is to make it as easy as possible for staff to follow guidelines.
It is hard to tell what a 6 ft distance looks like without a measuring tape, which is why sticker markings on supermarket floors have been so effective.
Limiting the amount of people allowed in a lift or in the kitchen at one time is also vital, as they will be frequented areas even if operating with half the staff.
3. How have you reduced the risk of contamination?
The question is, how will you prevent this from happening once they return to work?
Consider what objects employees come into contact with the most around workplace.
Is it the doorknobs? The buttons on the lift? The soap dispensers in the bathroom? Germany traced the country’s first community transmission to a saltshaker in an office cafeteria.
Biometric authentication company NEC has developed facial recognition software that is capable of recognizing people even with masks on.
Fujitec is working on elevator technology that lets users hold their hand near infrared sensors to choose their floor.
For the time being, other touchless solutions more readily available for the workplace include magnetic passes that allow employees to open doors, or automatic soap-dispensers and hand-dryers in bathrooms.
Furthermore, QR codes are a useful tool to let employees access an online form with their own device. This means no contact with company IT hardware, and less interaction with staff until the person completes their assessment.
The hospitality industry has made fantastic use of this technology, both with the Track and Trace system in the UK (which offers venues the option of creating their own QR code to facilitate customer registration) and to access menus on customers’ own devices.
Both systems simplify processes and reduce the risk of transmission through physical contact.
However, thoroughly disinfecting surfaces remains a basic for returning to business. Before you return to work, you should consider how your company will be addressing a more intensive cleaning schedule.
4. How have you maintained your facilities during lockdown?
A lot of buildings, especially offices, barely had a chance to return to full activity before the second lockdown was imposed. Those buildings that received proper maintenance throughout this time will return to business relatively quickly and safely, once permitted.
Buildings that didn’t receive proper care during closure could become a health hazard to occupants.
As an unintended consequence of closure, pipes of unused buildings store water for unusually long periods of time. This favors the growth of organisms such as Legionella, which can cause pneumonia in humans.
Furthermore, with certain pipe materials, stagnant water accumulates high levels of lead and copper over time, which also have harmful consequences.
To prevent this from happening, you must flush buildings to replace all the old water with new water at least weekly.
If flushing has not been done during closure, you should conduct your water safety risk assessment procedure. You should also carry out tests to ensure the safety of the water before employees can return to work.
5. How have you trained your staff on new measures?
In countries with less strict lockdown measures such as Sweden, governments are relying on the public choosing to act safely in order to curb the infection rate. This requires clear, effective communication from the government.
Similarly, a study conducted by Yale has proven that infections in child care centres were effectively kept down simply by carers’ diligence in following safety measures.
Workplace rules will only work if you communicate them with clarity and reinforce them with training. Training will be at the core of success.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, restrictions to presential learning have driven a shift to online courses. If universities all over the world have managed to shift their learning online, SARS-CoV-2 awareness training should be no different.
The most common equipment to feature in the training will be basic PPE such as face masks, which makes it easy to be conducted remotely. There is a lot of misinformation on when and how to use face masks, so training should aim toward SARS-CoV-2.
Follow World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on how to correctly use PPE. There is a section on the website providing advice to decision makers on the use of masks for healthy people in community settings.
Since it will take some time for people to adjust, you can increase awareness by using visual icons . Gain access to free COVID-19 Awareness icons from Pro-Sapien to support your return to work initiatives.
6. How have you supported your staff’s mental health?
Although COVID-19 targets physical health, it has also taken a heavy toll on global morale.
The uncertainty of job security, building pressure at home and the fear of the disease in itself are all contributing factors that can negatively influence people’s mental health.
Consequently, the return to work should be a slow and calculated one.
Many employees might have been directly affected by the virus and their pain should not be overlooked. Flexibility will be required and vulnerable people might not return for some time.
Employees should be fully aware of changes to safety measures before returning to work. This way guidelines will be followed from the beginning, and workers will have some control over all the uncertainty.
As staff work on staggered shifts or continue working from home, a good communication structure will be crucial to monitor colleagues’ mental health. Corporate IT like Microsoft Teams allows team members to stay in touch.
Furthermore, you should make your staff aware of available helplines, even before they return to work. Consider that employees might not be willing to share their personal grievances with a work colleague.
Some employers have gone one step further, like the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), to provide an internal helpline for employees.
For some recommendations on how to improve your mental health going into winter, check out GOV.UK guidelines.
7. How have you evaluated the effectiveness of these measures?
There is no way for you to know risk controls are working if you cannot evaluate how successful they are.
Trained employees should be able to tell when rules are not being followed, or when procedures are not doing what they were designed to do.
One way to harness that is with a simple Observations tool—a short form that you typically fill out in on a mobile device, sometimes anonymously.
For example, a UK-based Pro-Sapien client in the oil and gas industry is encouraging employees to use their Safety Intervention form to highlight problems with social distancing or other new policies. This way, the safety team can identify gaps in safety measures.
You can also use Inspections to review measures on a regular basis and to take heed of employee observations.
Additionally, being able to see data from Observations, Inspections and Risk Assessments in visual dashboards allows EHS Managers to make important decisions quickly before an issue gets out of hand.
An Ongoing Situation
It goes without saying, follow government guidelines to keep employees safe. However, you can go above and beyond with these suggestions.
Since it’s likely COVID-19 is here to stay, at least throughout 2021, these measures are an investment. Look for sustainable solutions, especially those that will assist in other areas too, such as safety inspections software.
Given current circumstances, it’s now harder than ever for the board to say no to health and safety investment. Why? Learn the 5 reasons you can use to get buy-in now.