While many companies are struggling to understand how to return to work during a pandemic, remote locations have extra challenges. The impact of a COVID-19 outbreak in a remote location can be more severe, especially if there is limited access to health care or if employees work in confined spaces. Because of these challenges, remote workplaces should develop a robust risk mitigation plan when returning employees to work.
Remote Site Challenges
First, consider the limitations of the worksite. Many remote locations do not have access to health care facilities. Other remote locations, such as vessels, may move around and have varying levels of access to hospitals or other facilities.
These complications are magnified due to COVID-19. Limited access to health care also means limited access to testing, screening and vaccination options. If tests cannot be processed by a lab, it is hard to diagnose and appropriately isolate sick employees. Some places, such as small vessels, do not even have space to isolate sick crew members. Therefore, companies with remote workplaces should take extra steps to help ensure that the virus does not arrive at the site.
Conduct Pre-Deployment Quarantine and Testing
The best-case scenario for a remote worksite is that no one with COVID-19 is allowed on-site, so companies should conduct testing and quarantine workers prior to entering the worksite. Confirming that the worker has not had coronavirus at the time of the test and keeping them quarantined until they leave will minimize this risk.
Conducting testing and quarantining can be a logistical hurdle. PCR testing, which analyzes an employee’s sample for the presence of the virus, requires a laboratory, and usually takes at least 24 hours to get a result. Since results can take up 72 hours, the return to work plan should include quarantine protocols for employees while they wait for test results and until they are transported to the site. Employees who do not properly quarantine could be exposed to coronavirus after a negative test result, so quarantine protocols are essential to keep the remote worksite safe and healthy.
Develop On-Site Controls
Even if companies take steps to keep COVID-19 from entering the workplace, no approach can guarantee that the site will be completely safe. All plans should also include on-site controls, which can help mitigate the spread of coronavirus if the it does enter the remote site. While the CDC does offer guidance on developing a return to work plan, this plan needs to be tailored to fit a remote environment. Some recommendations include:
- Consider screening employees (such as with a temperature check) before they enter a shared workspace
- Educate employees about how to stay healthy
- Focus on how to keep the worksite clean, including more rigorous cleaning and access to hand sanitizer and face coverings
The return to work plan should also include what to do if there is a COVID-19 outbreak. The CDC has provided clear instructions to follow, including conducting a thorough cleaning, notifying employees who may have been exposed, and instructing the exposed employees to quarantine at home for 14 days. These steps form a good foundation, but some companies— especially those with remote facilities—may need to take additional steps to reduce risk. An office worker can be sent home, but a worker on an oil rig cannot be removed from the work site so easily. Therefore, companies should develop a plan for isolating workers at remote locations. Keeping a sick worker separated from the rest of the population can help keep the virus from spreading.
Create an Isolation Location
Remote locations often have limited space, which can make isolating sick individuals more challenging. For example, on many vessels, crew members share a sleeping location, so someone’s “room” cannot be used for isolation because other people will be in and out. Designing an isolation location for individuals who test positive but do not exhibit severe symptoms may be a good solution for some remote sites. Sick individuals will likely have to spend the CDC-recommended 10 days in isolation, so they need access to food, water, and sanitation facilities. Sites without an isolation location may be forced to conduct an expensive medical evacuation to avoid spreading the virus even if the sick individual’s symptoms are mild.
Benefits of an Effective Return to Work Plan
The first benefit of an effective return to work plan is keeping employees healthy and safe so that they can remain productive. Remote worksites often have a minimal number of employees, so the productivity of each one is often critical to day-to-day operations. Keeping everyone healthy can help prevent work stoppages and keep critical operations online.
It can sometimes be challenging to see the benefits when the plan is working well, but it is easy to see the damage a bad plan can cause. When there was a coronavirus outbreak at an offshore well in Brazil, employees believed that the company had failed them by not conducting testing or providing high-quality masks. Having a plan in place can help maintain employee morale during tough times, and high morale also has financial benefits, as happy employees may be more productive.
Also, a company with a clear return to work plan in place may be less likely to be sued if there is an outbreak. Again, when a plan is working well, the benefits may be hard to quantify, but the financial cost of an outbreak can be high. A meatpacking plant in Colorado was fined $15,000 for failing to have a plan in place to protect its employees from coronavirus. The plant had nearly 300 cases and six deaths associated with it.
Being in the news for an outbreak can be damaging to a company’s reputation. An effective return to work plan may help prevent soiling the corporate image and maintain a positive customer perception.
Returning employees to work during a pandemic can be a challenge. Thankfully, there are many good resources online to guide the process, such as the CDC’s guidelines. For further help with tailoring a company’s plan for a remote location, some companies reach out to medical experts. Medical staffing and solution companies can confirm that a testing or screening program is compliant with local laws and designed to screen for the virus as effectively as possible.