The COVID-19 pandemic has been the catalyst for significant shifts in workplaces across the world, as companies pivot to remote work, prioritizing essential operations, and taking additional precautions to ensure employee safety while minimizing the risk of transmitting the virus. Managing your business’ response efficiently and effectively is critical to ensuring employee health and safety while preventing increases in cost, workflow disruptions, poor publicity, and increased employee turnover. While every business’ response must be individualized to their own needs and circumstances, there are a few common issues that you can address to strengthen your company’s risk prevention and ensure effective employee health management during this challenging time.
Understanding the Risks of COVID-19
Also referred to as SARS-CoV-2, or simply as “the coronavirus”, COVID-19 is one of a family of coronaviruses that infect the upper respiratory tract and nasal passages and cause respiratory illness. Like other coronaviruses, COVID-19 spreads primarily through person-to-person contact when one person comes into contact with respiratory droplets from an infected person or by touching a contaminated surface before touching their eyes, mouth, or nose. COVID-19 is more contagious and has a much higher rate of infection than the seasonal flu, resulting in the current widespread outbreak, and has greater risk of death or lasting health ramifications. While most people show symptoms after five days, it can take up to fourteen days for symptoms to appear - and some people may never show symptoms at all despite being infected. As a result, it is common for the virus to be spread by people who aren’t aware that they have been infected. Those with pre-existing health conditions are more likely to experience severe symptoms, and the prevailing concern is the capacity of healthcare systems across the world to successfully treat such large numbers of patients simultaneously.
Setting the Tone for an Effective Workplace Response
Start by being proactive. It’s vital to ensure safety procedures are in place before any cases are confirmed in your workplace to establish effective responses to all possible scenarios. Being ahead of the curve will help instill confidence in your teams and ensure a smooth transition to the new protocols. Utilize your employee health management software to distribute informational materials, online video training regarding new and updated procedures, and other materials as applicable. By doing so, you ensure that all staff have a centralized source for the latest information on how the organization is responding to the situation as it continues to evolve. Be proactive about employee engagement and soliciting feedback, as making sure that staff have the opportunity to ask questions and express concerns can help alleviate mistrust and fear while promoting cohesive implementation across the organization.
Pay attention to the latest research and developments, being mindful of the latest guidelines released by health research organizations and regulatory bodies. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are excellent resources to check regularly. As recommendations are updated, update your procedures as well. As the situation progresses, the information available becomes more accurate. Utilize reliable sources, and share from those sources directly with staff whenever appropriate. Consider sending out a weekly update to all employees in order to provide a regular informational update, including both the latest articles and a status report from within the company. This can also offer an opportunity to highlight and celebrate successes and achievements as applicable.
Finally, stay calm. Create a culture of balanced, responsible practices without resorting to fear-based tactics, denial, or panic.
Supporting Healthy Remote Work Practices for Employees
For many organizations, the best practices for safety during the pandemic include transitioning employees to temporary remote work environments. Some businesses may only be able to have a small group of employees shift to remote work, while others have the capability to move the majority or all of their staff to a remote setting. The general consensus is that all positions that could be managed remotely should do so until the pandemic has passed, but this can be more challenging for companies that have not had remote staff in the past and are relatively unprepared. It’s important to be intentional in supporting staff who are new to working remotely in establishing best practices for their new work environment.
While it’s tempting to think that working from home eliminates the risk of work-related injuries, unfortunately that’s not actually the case. Employees who aren’t used to remote work may often neglect to set up their work stations properly, increasing risk of injuries due to poor ergonomics. Providing information and support to help address this can prevent a spike in complaints relating to joint pain and discomfort while working remotely.
You can strengthen your company’s employee health management for remote workers by disseminating information on best practices for remote work. Include these tips for the ideal seated posture while working: Back straight in a supportive chair, elbows and wrists relaxed and parallel to the work surface, with feet placed flat on the ground and thighs parallel to the floor. To minimize distractions and eye strain, employees should utilize good lighting that doesn’t cause monitor glare, and choose a setting that reduces background noise and disruption. Make sure employees know how to adjust their screen brightness, including nighttime settings, and wear blue light filtering glasses if needed. Staff should also take regular breaks to stand and stretch, with extra attention paid to wrists and hands, and maintain a gentle exercise routine to promote good circulation after long periods of sitting. Your ESHQ software may be able to be used to send out automated reminders to help employees establish healthy habits and avoid risk.
Managing Employee Health Screenings, Testing, and Follow-Up
Employee health screening is another important component of ongoing precautionary measures. Your organization should have a clear policy for who needs to be tested for COVID-19, when, and how often - as well as detailed procedures on what should occur if an employee tests positive. It’s important to remember that many people who have the virus do not show any symptoms and can still carry and transmit the disease to other people they may come into contact with. Your testing plan should account for that and include testing of those without symptoms as tests become more widely available. Antibody testing is also starting to become more accessible, which can help confirm suspected previous or asymptomatic cases. Early detection is key to protecting employee health and preventing further transmission. Employees that do test positive should self-quarantine until it has been determined that they are no longer contagious and have been given medical clearance to return to the workplace, and anyone who may have been exposed to the sick person should also isolate until they are able to be tested.
In order to provide more effective employee health management, consider utilizing quantitative survey tools to help proactively assess risks to individuals and identify who within your organization is most likely to be affected. Cority is offering two Health Screening Tools to support companies in conducting assessments: A COVID-19 Staff Exposure Questionnaire, a shorter screening tool to quickly identify employees who are potentially at risk, and the COVID-19 Patient Under Investigation Questionnaire for conducting comprehensive health risk audits to assess at-risk employees for potential exposure to the virus. By taking advantage of these health surveillance tools, your company can simplify and streamline screenings to ensure that your testing protocol is targeted to your specific needs.
Ensuring Consistent Occupational Health and Safety
For businesses continuing in-person operations by necessity throughout the course of the pandemic, additional safety practices above and beyond normal protocols are critical to containing any potential transmission and lowering risk to staff and prospective customers or clients. While much of the advice circulating may seem straightforward, paying attention to the details makes a big difference.
Hand washing is only effective when done regularly and thoroughly. Scrubbing the hands with soap for at least thirty seconds is a good guideline, but more importantly, each part of the hands must be incorporated - including under the nails, the back of the hands, the thumbs, between the fingers, and the wrists. Personal protective equipment (PPE) can also play a role in preventing transmission if used properly. When masks are worn, they should cover both the nose and the chin, fitting snugly without gaping or bunching. Employees should not pull down or remove their masks between tasks or while in shared spaces. Unless washable, masks should only be worn once before being safely disposed of in an appropriate container. Reusable masks should be laundered with detergent after each use. While being worn, masks should be treated as contaminated objects, and employees should wash their hands after each time they touch their mask in order to avoid cross-contamination. Gloves should also be worn only once, and any surface touched while using the gloves should be disinfected before being touched by another person.
The most effective solution for disinfecting surfaces is a bleach and water cleaning solution, and commercial disinfectants are also widely available. However, staff must also utilize caution when using any cleaning agent to prevent accidents or injury. Start by ensuring that the cleaning products selected are fitting for use within your work environment, and are approved for your needs. Train staff on how to appropriately use and dispose of cleaning chemicals, including processes for how to handle any chemical spills or other incidents, and that the right PPE is being used for those products. Engage managers and supervisors to regularly and consistently verify that the correct procedures are being used for safe disinfecting, and follow up with corrective action plans as needed. At all levels of the organization, staff should continue to practice excellent hygiene while ensuring that objects and surfaces are frequently cleaned and disinfected.
Following Best Practices for Employee Health Management During COVID-19
By implementing improved employee health management practices, your company can successfully continue to operate while protecting staff and clients from the health and safety risks associated with COVID-19.
For more helpful information, view our COVID-19 Resource Kit.