As the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread around the world, occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals play a key role in helping organizations protect workers, communicate accurately and effectively about the risks, and ensure business continuity when a pandemic event threatens to disrupt normal operations.
“The key right now for most OSH professionals in the U.S. is planning for community person-to-person spread of the virus (otherwise known as sustained local transmission) in areas where the company has operations,” says ASSP President-Elect Deborah Roy, M.P.H., RN, COHN-S, CSP, CIT, FASSP, FAAOHN. Roy, president of SafeTech Consultants Inc. and former corporate director of health, safety and wellness at L.L.Bean, adds that the updated employer guidance from World Health Organization (WHO) is a good starting place.
Rely on Trusted Resources and Information
Misinformation and rumors are a concern during any pandemic because they can heighten fear and create greater uncertainty. That's why it is important to take time to identify, share and rely on trusted sources for the latest information as the situation evolves.
“The best sources of information are WHO, CDC and OSHA, and scientific medical sources such as JAMA or PubMed,” Roy advises.
Safety professionals can also support their organization’s efforts to communicate effectively and accurately by sharing information that discourages rumors and refutes erroneous information from the Internet. WHO offers a set of myth-busting infographics that OSH professionals and employers can readily share to help employers and employees and their families understand the facts and make good decisions, she says.
Take Action to Prepare for a Pandemic
From a risk assessment/management perspective, Roy says many organizations should already have a pandemic plan as part of their business continuity plans. As a checklist for those organizations that have a plan and as a starting point for those that do not, Roy recommends the following set of actions:
- Develop a plan for worker absences.
- Develop flexible attendance and sick-leave policies. For example, depending on the makeup of your workforce, safety professionals can encourage employers to consider pandemic pay policies that allow sick workers to stay home, regardless of the amount of paid leave they have accumulated.
- Identify critical job functions and positions, and plan for alternative coverage by cross-training staff.
- Develop a method for monitoring and tracking COVID-19 worker absences. This type of system will help you determine what level of absenteeism will disrupt day-to-day operations.
- Designate a space for people who may become sick and cannot leave the workplace immediately.
- Plan for social distancing and determine ways to increase space between people to at least three feet. You can achieve this in several ways, such as offering the option to telework; reducing or staggering work schedules; spacing workers farther apart; postponing nonessential meetings; and using email, conference calls or online meetings.
- Consider how support services such as employee assistance programs or on-site healthcare services can be provided via telephone or video conference.
- Review the process of planning for workplace events and determine how the company will decide to cancel or postpone.
- Identify how local pandemic plans might affect your workplace. For example, schools closing for two weeks would cause parents to need childcare or to stay home to care for children.
- Identify how the company will make travel decisions for essential and nonessential business travel.
In addition, as companies identify critical services that would need to continue should business be disrupted by an outbreak, Roy says that OSH professionals can help determine the risks of alternate processes and identify training needed if employees are cross trained to roles that they haven’t performed before. “It is also important to consider work hours and fatigue if staffing is reduced by illness,” she says.
Establish Communications Protocols
Another area that companies should address as part of their plan is how they will reach employees to provide information about workplace conditions, closures or instructions. Many companies have systems that deliver text messages or e-mails about weather closures and other emergencies that can be used for pandemic communications as well, provided the company has collected necessary contact information in advance.
“If your workplace doesn’t have such as system, then social media, traditional TV, radio or newspapers may be the only ways to let employees know what is happening,” Roy says. “Also keep in mind that if employees are working from home on their own computers and phones, their coworkers may not know how to reach them without having personal e-mail or phone numbers.”
Create an Effective Telework Policy
As concern around the spread of coronavirus grows, it is a good time to review your telework policy or to develop one if your organization does not have one.
“Promoting teleworking across your organization will help the business to keep operating and keep employees safe,” Roy says. “If there is an outbreak in your community, the public health authorities may advise people to avoid public transport and crowded places.” You can find many examples of telework policies online by searching terms like "sample telework policy," "telework policy template" and "telecommuting policy template."
As part of a telework program, your company’s IT team will need to determine what equipment is available, assess system capacity, such as how many people can connect at one time and for what tasks (e.g., just e-mail or video conferencing), and make sure the connections are secure.
For worker safety issues specifically, Roy recommends that you develop a checklist for employees to use to properly set up their home workspace and to identify safety risks.
“Other considerations would be how employees can be accommodated under the Americans With Disabilities Act if needed,” Roy says. “Lastly, employees need to know that they are covered by workers’ compensation while telecommuting and need to be aware of injury-reporting procedures.
Educate Employees on Effective Prevention Measures
Beyond communicating the facts from trusted sources, safety professionals can help educate employees about effective prevention measures.
As with any risks, OSH professionals should use the hierarchy of controls to determine the best way to protect employees from hazards, Roy explains. “Cleaning high-touch areas such as door handles and rails, washing hands frequently and thoroughly, not touching your eyes, nose and mouth, practicing good respiratory hygiene and staying home when they are sick are good practices for employees to follow during cold and flu season, and they apply in this COVID-19 outbreak as well.”
Employers will want to ensure they have adequate supplies of tissues, trash receptacles and 60% alcohol hand sanitizer. Masks should be made available only to those who become sick at work until they leave the workplace.
“N95 masks should be reserved for existing work settings with particulate exposure from work functions, emergency responders or healthcare facilities,” Roy says. “Despite that fact that the public in some cultures use masks in many public spaces, masks are not effective against the spread of COVID-19 unless they are properly fitted and worn correctly along with other appropriate PPE.”
Safety professionals can also help employees prepare their families for a potential outbreak in their community by encouraging the following measures:
- Have nonperishable food and toiletries available at home if they need to stay home for two weeks.
- Have a sufficient supply of prescription medicine for all family members and pets.
- Have ibuprofen or acetaminophen on hand for fever control.
- Consider alternate childcare arrangements in case a parent becomes ill.
- Check that elderly family members and friends have appropriate resources. “Those who appear most severely impacted by this virus are the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or immuno-compromising conditions,” Roy explains, adding that so far about 80% of those who contract COVID-19 have had mild illness and have been able to self-care at home.
Address Global Responsibilities and Travel Precautions
OSH professionals with responsibilities in global operations may already be dealing with government-required closures, reductions of operations or travel restrictions due to local person-to-person spread of the virus.
“In these cases, the pandemic plan will already be activated,” Roy explains. “Follow local requirements, travel bans and use the WHO guidance that is updated daily in order to determine next steps.” Roy says that most global companies have been requiring those returning to the U.S. from a country with COVID-19 to work at home and monitor for fever for 14 days.
“These policies will need to be reevaluated as person-to-person spread continues in the U.S. and in other countries,” she says.
Other measures to consider for employees who travel:
- Share the latest CDC information on areas where there is sustained local transmission of coronavirus.
- Avoid sending employees who may be at higher risk of serious illness (e.g., older employees and those with medical conditions such as diabetes, heart and lung disease) to areas where COVID-19 is spreading.
- Make sure all persons traveling to locations reporting virus cases are briefed by a qualified health professional such as the on-site occupational health provider.
- Issue small bottles (under 3.4 oz) of 60% alcohol hand sanitizer.
- Encourage employees to wash their hands regularly and stay at least 3 feet away from people who are coughing or sneezing.
- Ensure employees know what to do and who to contact if they feel ill while traveling.
- Ensure employees comply with instructions from local authorities where they are traveling.
- Employees who have returned from an area where COVID-19 is spreading should monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days and take their temperature twice a day. If they develop even a mild cough or low-grade fever, they should contact their healthcare provider and give them details of their recent travel and symptoms. The provider will then determine next steps.
- Make sure the employee knows who to contact at work if they are diagnosed with COVID-19. Ensure that confidentiality of health information is maintained.
Know What Not to Do
OSH professionals and employers can take many steps to help protect and educate employees. But they must also take care not to inadvertently cause more concern or panic through certain actions.
“For example, avoid telling employees that they will be fine and the risk to them is zero,” Roy says, adding that the number of cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. will grow as testing capacity at the state and local level increases in the next few weeks. “Acknowledging fear and allowing employees to process that fear is an important step in risk communication. Keep providing facts and explaining what steps individuals can take to prepare. This is what they can control.”
In addition, employers should not single out or discriminate against any group or individuals due to race, country of origin or health status. The outbreak will impact a wide range of people and no one group is responsible for spreading it.
Another precaution is to avoid creating concern about services, products or shipping packages from international locations.
“COVID-19 is a droplet disease,” Roy explains. “Although it can be spread by fresh droplets on a surface that are touched by someone who then touches their eyes, nose or mouth, the virus is fragile and will not live on surfaces very long.” Roy says that photos showing workers in other countries wearing PPE and spraying disinfect on the streets and sidewalks suggest that the virus is airborne and, therefore, everywhere outdoors. “This is not the case.”
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