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COVID-19: Return-to-Work Strategies

May 11, 2020

As businesses across the country begin to reopen and bring people backBusinessman writing on an erasable board at work to work facilitiesit’s critical that measures are in place to protect the health of workers and others who enter your facility.

“You should have a pandemic plan for your workplace, and the key here is that you may need to add reentry procedures to that plan,” says Deb Roy, M.P.H., RN, COHN-S, CSP, CIT, FASSP, FAAOHN, president of SafeTech Consultants and ASSP President-Elect. “As part of your planning process, you have to think through how you safely bring people back to work.”

Here are some practical strategies you can use to protect your workforce and the public, as well as some other factors to keep in mind as you plan for bringing people back to your work facilities.

Implement a Phased Approach

To address the physical distancing concerns associated with COVID-19, some employers may opt to bring workers back to the job in phases. For example, in manufacturing, warehousing or other businesses where employees don’t interact with the public, the first phase could involve bringing back 25% of the workforce and having physical distancing measures in place. This could then increase to 50% in a second phase, 75% in a third and the full workforce in the fourth. If the manufacturing or warehouse facility is part of a campus, employers could also require that workers stay in the building to which they are assigned.

Establish Staggered Shifts

A similar approach for establishing social distancing in the workplace is staggering the number of employees on the job site at any given time. For example, in office environments, a certain group of workers would be in the office one week, and a different group of workers would be in the office the following week. This method also allows for time in between shifts for further cleaning and disinfecting of the work environment.

Roy notes that the most suitable method for a particular workplace will depend on the facility layout and the type of work being performed. For instance, office environments may have greater flexibility for employees to telework compared to manufacturing facilities where employees need to be on-site, often working near one another.

Furthermore, you also have to consider whether customers are coming to your facility and how you will protect your employees and those customers from exposure. This may involve measures such as limiting the number of customers allowed in the facility at any one time. 

Institute Physical Barriers     

Along with increasing the distance between workers, establishing physical barriers in the workplace is another method for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Such barriers can help reduce physical distancing in the workplace

“If you look at the number of cases [of COVID-19] in the U.S., we’re going to have a lot of people who are potentially exposed going back into the workplace, so we’re going to need barriers for a long time” says Roy. “This is an opportunity to start engineering controls so that you have appropriate barriers for different workspaces.”

She notes that in the short-term, you could use materials like polyethylene plastic sheeting as a physical barrier. However, you must consider how you will clean it, maintain it and ensure that it doesn’t get caught in any equipment. She encourages employers to use plexiglass or something more permanent that is engineered for the operation. You should also consider the possibility of any unintended ergonomic consequences that physical barriers could bring about.

Improve Facility Layout

Given that COVID-19 is a droplet disease transmitted through the air, you should think about the breathing zone of each of your workers. For example, if a worker is facing forward and potentially having spray coming out of their mouth, you don’t want another worker right across from them within six feet. In such a case, it may be preferable to have workers standing side-by-side to reduce the chance for exposure.

Roy notes that manufacturing or distribution facilities often include side-by-side benches, and benches that are opposite each other. In cases when benches are opposite each other, where feasible, those stations could be flipped around so that workers are facing away from each other. If possible, side-by-side benches could be configured so that every other bench is open to allow for social distancing.  

Along with these engineering controls, it’s also important to examine how traffic will move through different work areas to minimize the potential for exposure for workers operating in a fixed location. For example, if possible, you could institute a one-way traffic pattern that will allow for better flow through the facility and increase social distancing.

Roy encourages employers and safety professionals to reference the State of Minnesota’s COVID-19 Preparedness plan and instructions for guidance on the elements that should be included in your plan for bringing employees back to work.

Monitor Employee Exposure

Employers must also stay vigilant about monitoring workers’ health, particularly those who have been exposed to COVID-19. CDC guidance states that exposed employees involved in critical infrastructure can stay at work under the following conditions:

  • Pre-screening: Checking the employee’s temperature and assessing their symptoms before they enter the facility.
  • Regular monitoring: If the employee does not have a temperature and is not exhibiting symptoms, they should self-monitor under the supervision of the occupational health program.
  • Wear a mask: The employee should wear a mask at all times while in the workplace for 14 days after the date of their last exposure. Employers can issue facemasks or approve employees’ supplied face coverings in the event of shortages.
  • Social distance: The employee should maintain a distance of six feet and practice throughout the workplace as work duties permit.
  • Clean and disinfect workspaces: Routinely clean and disinfect areas such as bathrooms, offices and common areas, as well as shared equipment.

As you monitor workers’ health, remember the symptoms of COVID-19. Roy stresses that CDC has expanded the list of COVID-19 symptoms since the virus first surfaced, and that you should monitor workers for the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

Roy also emphasizes that while fever is the most prevalent symptom of COVID-19, not everyone who has the virus has a fever. Although many organizations are checking for fever and other symptom, it’s important to remember that fever may not always occur, even with someone who is symptomatic. Furthermore, not everyone is going to have all of these symptoms.

Related Links
COVID-19 Updates and Return to Work Strategies Webinar
CDC Issues Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Workplaces
OSHA and CDC Issue Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in Meat and Poultry Processing
Three Keys to Addressing COVID-19 in the Workplace
10 Ways to Reduce Worker Exposure to COVID-19



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