On January 23, the Chinese government locked down Wuhan, the original epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. While people prepared to start their Chinese New Year celebrations, factory managers worried about the impact on labor and production. In many cases, fractured management teams located across China activated crisis management teams and WeChat groups to address the impending fallout. On January 27, Chinese authorities notified factories to halt operations. As infection numbers started to subside in February and March, companies began to slowly reopen.
Companies throughout the United States now find themselves in a similar situation. As the country prepares to enter a period in which experts predict infections will peak, workplaces have shut down. But once the threat subsides, they too will be encouraged to reopen.
The return from a shutdown is not an immediate process and will likely occur gradually. Companies need to prepare for a phased-in approach as restrictions may be lifted unevenly across the country. Reviewing the lessons learned from China’s reopening experience and the risk management strategies deployed can help give U.S. companies a valuable head start.
1. Be prepared to implement government guidelines. At the federal level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued guidelines for establishing safe work environments during COVID-19. State and local authorities are also issuing guidelines for companies providing essential services. Businesses should look at these guidelines as a starting point. As more guidance emerges, particularly regarding the use of personal protective gear, workplace safety measures will expand.
To get back up and running as soon as possible, companies should already be preparing for the post-shutdown period. It is critical to conduct a detailed review and analysis of how to implement health and labor guidelines to protect employees returning to work.
In China, businesses were required to pass government inspections before being allowed to reopen. It is unlikely the United States will require mandatory OSHA inspections for approval to reopen, but companies still need to be prepared for potential inspections. Manufacturing environments are at higher risk of an outbreak due to the close proximity of workers on production lines and should exercise greater care.
In China, environmental health and safety (EHS) teams led the response to government workplace regulations by implementing comprehensive control measures. Factories needed to ensure that they had adequate supplies of key materials like surgical masks, disinfectant and equipment to check employees’ temperatures. Security guards led front-line duties, ensuring all employees wore masks and regularly checked their temperatures. EHS teams organized disinfection campaigns. Specific protocols for how to quarantine or to manage cases where people recorded a fever were enforced and reported to management.
2. Deploy front-line risk mitigation. Before restarting operations, EHS and human resources teams in China approved workers to return gradually based on an assessment of their recent travel. U.S. companies should take a similar approach to minimize any potential higher-risk individuals entering their facilities. Checking employees’ travel histories became a standard, with many cities across China creating online apps to approve re-entry into their jurisdictions. These apps contained key questions and utilized big data to assess whether employees were approved to return to work. In some cases, individuals were approved to return, but they either had to be quarantined at home or on factory premises for 14 days.
Tracking the health and travel histories of employees should be strongly considered in the United States. Companies will need to be mindful of potential health and privacy concerns. Assessing exposure among employees based on where they spent the shutdown period and the health status of their family members will be an important front-line mitigation strategy.
The risk of infection to workers in different parts of the country will depend on the infection rate in the state, city or county. As of early April, Wuhan had only recently begun to relax restrictions. Given the high number of cases in New York, for example, if an employee’s travel history showed that they were in the city within the previous 14 days, an employer should request the employee delay returning to work. U.S. employers are not likely to have the same access to data as in China where a mobile service provider app can track the travel history of an individual’s cell phone. Companies could instead use self-declaration surveys for employees to provide general health symptoms and travel status.
After screening returning employees for potential health risks, companies should also consider requiring checking temperatures and using masks for anyone to enter a site. Enforcing this at the entrance to a facility is the most effective way to mitigate risks associated with both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. At a minimum, voluntary mask use on company premises should be encouraged. This would be a particularly good practice in manufacturing environments, where distancing efforts on production lines may be hampered by the availability of space.
3. Perform internal workplace risk mitigation. Companies can also take steps inside facilities to reduce COVID-19 risks. Using OSHA guidelines, EHS teams can conduct a risk assessment of their facilities to identify high-traffic areas. These areas may include elevators, breakrooms, production lines and bathrooms. EHS teams will need to redesign these areas by applying social distancing principles to the flow of people and the space between workspaces. For example, cafeterias can be redesigned so that dining areas are individually shielded by physical barriers or eating spaces kept at a safe distance from each other.
Because COVID-19 is also known to remain on surfaces for extended periods, deep and frequent disinfection is required for high-contact surfaces. In some areas, there may be difficulties in procuring adequate supplies of disinfectant or other materials. Employers can consider creative ways to reduce contact with elevator buttons. In China, it is common for facilities to install tissue paper or replaceable plastic coverings on elevator buttons.
If an employee presents symptoms on-site, companies need to be prepared to quickly isolate the individual and arrange for medical diagnosis. Isolation rooms should be designated for cases that arise. Procedures should be created to manage suspected cases, including quarantining the individual and next steps to arrange for medical diagnosis and further triage. If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers will also need to trace their contact with other employees. Security systems such as access control and CCTV can be used to support this process. Those who have been in contact with the COVID-positive employees may also need to be quarantined for extended periods.
For critical operations, employers can further mitigate the impact of an on-site outbreak by establishing two separate teams that work alternating shifts. This will help to ensure fewer people are impacted by an on-site outbreak.
Following the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies will need to be ready to implement their recovery plans. By implementing key workplace controls, employers can mitigate the risks and ensure a safe return for all.