The prospect of employees returning to the workplace during and after the COVID-19 pandemic presents many challenges. You want to implement proper safeguards to protect employee safety and address any fears or anxiety employees may have about returning to the workplace or getting vaccinated.
In early April 2021, we spoke with ASSP President Deb Roy about steps employers were taking at that time to protect employee health and safety during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and address the psychosocial aspects of transitioning back to the workplace. Please refer to the latest guidance from public health and government authorities for the most current information.
ASSP: How should employers modify processes and procedures as they prepare for employees to return to work, specifically as it relates to office-type work and telework?
Deb: By now, workstations at home should be set up correctly, but that may not be the case. If your organization didn’t have a process to evaluate ergonomics for employees, for example, this is an opportunity to implement a procedure for addressing how to make sure at-home workstations are ergonomically appropriate.
Working at the dining room table on a laptop for a week is probably not a big deal. Doing it permanently is a whole different story. We need to look at how we are going to deal with accommodating employees with equipment and think about how we are going to set up parameters for workstations.
ASSP: How would you advise employers to address fears or anxiety employees may have about returning to the workplace?
Addressing the psychosocial aspect of returning to the workplace is critical. Employees need to understand what your plan is so that they are comfortable with the procedures you’re going to have in place when they return to work.
Many of us have been in more isolated situations. We haven’t had much exposure to places where there are crowds for a long time. Depending on the individual, there is going to be a different level of comfort.
Some people want to get back in the workplace and see their coworkers and talk over the water cooler, others are not comfortable with that, so I think we have to acknowledge that, then give people options.
ASSP: What controls should be in place to address worker health and safety while only part of the workforce is vaccinated and high levels of virus transmission exist in the community?
Deb: What’s interesting is people’s perception that when you have a workplace that has people who are partially vaccinated you can do different things than we’ve been doing all along. The fact is you can’t. Even if you have a workspace with some people who are vaccinated, you’re still not probably going to be at a high enough level to reach herd immunity in that particular workplace for a while.
So, we’re still going to have to wear masks. We’re still going to have to distance and focus on ventilation and other factors.
ASSP: What if different facilities have different levels of transmission in the community?
Deb: Part of the challenge is that as an OSH professional you may have different facilities that you're responsible for in different parts of the country or globally. The levels of transmission in the community will be different in those different spaces.
You need to think about what metrics you are going to use to increase or decrease controls in those facilities based on data. So, you need community data.
One way to look at this is to use a website that has localized data. One sites that I like is CovidActNow. This website has data for the state and county level, so you can look at the positivity rate to see whether enough testing is being done to know what the spread is in that community. You can also see the number of cases per 100,000, which is helpful data. It’s a good place to start for comparison in the community.
Those are things to keep in mind as you’re trying to develop your plan and think about a rational way to increase or decrease control measures. Over time, we should start to see herd immunity one community at a time based on vaccination rates and the spread of the variants in particular parts of the country, because there is variation in terms of the transmission right now.
ASSP: Can employers mandate that employees be vaccinated?
Deb: According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), they can. EEOC has a guidance document specific to how you address accommodating employees who can’t be vaccinated because of other health issues and other factors.
Although employers can mandate, my recommendation to my clients is to consider strongly encouraging vaccination and to assist people with proper information. That approach is in my opinion a better one to reinforce the need for vaccination.
The other thing to keep in mind with mandating vaccination right now is the whole issue of FDA approval. There’s a lot of debate about whether the emergency use authorization allows employers to actually mandate the vaccine.
That legal controversy will continue, but the emergency use authorization by FDA is a true approval, it’s just not the full process approval. That’s something that will likely play out over time. The fact is that we should probably just focus on encouragement.
ASSP: How should employers handle situations where employees are hesitant to get vaccinated, and how can they educate employees on the importance of being vaccinated?
Deb: I think that’s important to address because, unfortunately, there has been an enormous amount of misinformation on social media regarding these vaccines. That’s too bad because, for me with a public health background, vaccination is such an important tool in our toolbox when we’re dealing with a pandemic.
What we can do as safety and health professionals is help employers provide good information. It’s also going to be helpful if you’ve been doing that all along so that you’ve developed some trust for that information with employees.
Providing good information with appropriate scientific references is important. Much of this is related to discomfort with absolute misinformation that spreads so rapidly on social media. Trying to counter that with the science is helpful.
I also think that if trusted individuals in the space are seen getting the vaccine, that’s helpful, particularly in you’re going to do an on-site clinic. Having senior leadership be visible in getting the vaccine and showing that they’re comfortable with it is an opportunity from an education standpoint. It really does help.
*Please note: The information presented in our podcast and summarized in this article is based on information available as of April 8, 2021. Please refer to the latest guidance from public health and government authorities for the most current information.
Listen to The Case for Safety Podcast for our full interview with Deb Roy about how you can plan for a safe return to the workplace.
Learn more about how you can address the pandemic in your workplace with our COVID-19 resources.