As states across the United States relax stay-at-home orders during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, risk managers at companies in many industries are grappling with how their employees can safely return to the office and job sites.
As long as COVID-19 is spreading in the community, transitioning back to a place of business safely and productively presents challenges. However, some organizations face greater risks than others simply because of the industry they are in and the work their employees do—most notably in health care, where employees face a high potential of interacting with individuals infected with COVID-19.
But there are other risk factors as well. At some organizations, employees find themselves in close proximity to one another or may be performing tasks where wearing masks all day is difficult. In other instances, workers are expected to share equipment and machinery regularly, or deal with customers, visitors, suppliers, vendors and others, creating additional opportunities to contract the virus.
The top priority for risk managers at these high-risk companies, and the ultimate measure of a successful and productive return-to-work effort, is employee safety. In reviewing best practices from essential businesses that have stayed open or effectively reopened, government agency guidelines and traditionally effective HR policies and practices, there are several tips and tactics risk managers can utilize to keep workers safe:
1. Conduct daily temperature screening: With no COVID-19 vaccine, social distancing and public health protocols will carry over into new workplace policies. Many states are recommending those protocols begin with screening employees for COVID-19 symptoms before they enter the office or job site. There are several ways to accomplish this:
- Employee self-reported screenings: New apps and technology platforms allow employees to take their temperature and log other customizable details, which can be verified and submitted to employers. It is important to note some workers may not have smart phones, and those who do may not be comfortable giving employers access to their devices.
- On-site temperature screenings: Medically-trained individuals can take employee and visitor temperatures and record other medical information at the entrance to the office building or worksite. These screenings should be conducted in designated area for testing that encourages distancing and keeps crowding to a minimum.
- COVID-19 antibody testing: More research and development is needed for this to be a viable option for employers, but antibody-based protocols could be created in the coming months.
2. Account for everyone who steps onto company property: Risk management departments may have to create protocols for vendors, customers and other visitors, which may include restricting third parties from entering specific areas. It is critical to consult with cleaning crews to ensure that proper disinfecting and sanitation protocols are routinely being followed. For employers in large buildings, coordinating with the building’s facility management team, other vendors and other tenants may be required around shared spaces such as the lobby and elevators.
3. Communicate early and often: Clearly and effectively communicating safety plans is imperative at any place of business. Risk managers and supervisors should incorporate COVID-19-related policies into their regular team meetings and updates. For new workers and new tasks, orientations should be modified to include information about face coverings, social distancing and proper hygiene. Regular communication through bulletin boards and email can also help to promote awareness and use of these safety precautions.
4. Create a safe and sanitary working environment: Risk management professionals should set social-distancing protocols with adequate signage and evaluate the safe use of shared spaces such as conference and break rooms. Employers should provide hand sanitizer, tissues and no-touch trash containers, and employees should be required to wear masks while in open environments.
5. Minimize the sharing of equipment: Whether the printer, a manufacturing station set-up or the company coffee pot, equipment sharing must be kept to a minimum. Where equipment must be shared, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for disinfection should be practiced prior to sharing. Disinfectant wipes should also be kept near all shared equipment.
6. Consider legal implications of requesting worker medical information and use of such information: Employers must not request information from employees that they are not legally entitled to or consider such information in making employment decisions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has shared clarifying policies for what medical information employers can request from employees during a pandemic. Risk managers and company leaders should review those guidelines and ensure compliance.
7. Stay attuned to ongoing developments: Given the evolving nature of this pandemic, staying up to date with shifting rules and regulations is essential. Risk managers should monitor the websites of state and local regulatory agencies, trade associations and news outlets regularly for updates.
Risk professionals must create strict protocols that address the myriad employee safety challenges facing high-risk organizations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But efforts cannot stop there. Maintaining employee safety requires ongoing attention and the ability to address emerging challenges.
These efforts should extend beyond the risk management department to key leaders from various parts of the organization. Similarly, these leaders and risk departments must regularly listen to concerns from their employees and implement changes to protocols as necessary to keep workers comfortable and safe. Ultimately, employers need to rely on common sense and prioritize communication with employees to ensure new protocols are understood and followed.