Slowly but surely every country around the world is beginning to acclimate to the ‘new normal.’ For some countries this has meant that borders remain closed, and for others such as Australia and New Zealand, it means forming a travel bubble. Social distancing, wearing a mask in public, and routinely, thoroughly, washing your hands is now something that is intrinsic part of daily life.
As countries begin to enter what is often called Phase 2 or Phase 3 in which lockdown measures are relaxed, workers are slowly beginning to transition from the work from home model, to one that involves plexiglass barriers between cubicles, and wearing a mask while in the office. As an employer, there are many occupational health solutions that can be used to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, and keep workers safe as they begin to return to offices and other places of work.
Pandemic-Proofing the Workspace
For essential workers and those on the frontlines, their work spaces were some of the first to be adapted to new safety regulations and requirements. Providing the proper personal protective equipment is one of the first occupational health solutions that every occupational health manager must consider. While procurement proved to be difficult at the beginning of the pandemic in March, there are now a variety of reputable vendors who can provide hand sanitizer, face masks, and shields.
Once the proper PPE has been procured, the workspace must be evaluated to ensure that physical distancing can be maintained throughout the duration of the shift. For retailers, this means that plexiglass shields that protect the cashier from potentially being coughed on by someone who is not wearing a mask is necessary. For factory workers, they need to have designated spaces in which they can perform their tasks within the prescribed distance they should maintain from others. Within an office itself, it may be necessary for workers to work on rotations of two weeks, to ensure that any staff who contract the novel coronavirus can self-quarantine during this time. Desks and cubicles must be staggered, so that physical distancing is maintained.
However, simply ensuring physical distancing and PPE regulations are met are just one facet of an effective occupational health management plan during this pandemic.
While we would all like to believe that we are in-tune with our bodies, and would be aware of any changes, this is not always the case, especially if you are under a lot of stress. That is why it is necessary for occupational health managers to institute a system of health surveillance for all employees, and possibly suppliers and vendors who employees come into contact with.
At the beginning of each shift, a questionnaire should be administered to all employees. Typically, this questionnaire would be administered via an occupational health technology that employees could access from their computers or on a mobile app. These questionnaires should contain questions designed to check if an employee is experiencing any of the symptoms associated with COVID-19. Should an employee answer ‘Yes’ to one or more of the symptoms then their questionnaire can be flagged, and the employee should receive a COVID-19 test.
If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, then contact tracing amongst the other employees that they came into contact with must be done by the occupational health manager. During this time, it is extremely important that employees be checked for symptoms, typically at the beginning of a shift and at the end of one.
Follow-Up with Recovered Workers
While health authorities around the world continue to study COVID-19 and the effects it has on the body, it has begun to emerge that re-infection may indeed be possible. Workers who have contracted COVID-19, and have recovered need to be followed-up with. They must be medically cleared to return to work, which means that they must no longer be exhibiting symptoms, and are virus free.
Occupational health managers can follow-up with employees who have been quarantined at home, and provide them with questionnaires to be filled out by them and their attending physician, to ensure that they are clear to return to work. Depending on the severity of the virus, they may have to return to work in a reduced capacity for a time.
The Work from Home Model
While some businesses are unable to function at an optimal level with the work from home model, others have shown that for tech-based jobs and other select industries, they have continued to thrive during this time.
For the world market to continue, goods and services must continue to be transported and produced. That means that many jobs simply cannot be performed at home. However, for administrative jobs, and others that can be done from home these workers should be encouraged to continue working from home. Productivity can be measured and monitored for those working from home, and for workers who continue to perform well, working from home should be an option. This keeps workers isolated, and can help to curb the spread of the virus. In addition, some workers who suffer from compromised immune systems simply cannot risk exposure to COVID-19, which means that there must also be exceptions made for at-risk workers.
Adapting to Changing Regulations
We cannot know what the future holds. The search for a vaccine or a treatment for COVID-19 continues, and day by day we get closer to finding one. Most countries have weathered the first wave of the coronavirus, and are waiting for the second wave to strike. That’s why health and safety regulations must be adhered to.
Without workers to produce hand sanitizer, or agricultural workers to harvest food, the fight against COVID-19 will become even harder. Occupational health solutions must be able to evolve as regulations change. The best way to quickly adopt these changes, and ensure that workers are aware of these changes is via technology. Most workers must login to a portal when they begin their shifts, and occupational health technology can quickly be updated to reflect new regulatory changes. After a worker has logged in, a pop-up or message can be provided which will inform the worker of any changes that have been made.
It is not normal for people to undergo prolonged isolation the way many have had to since March. The needed interaction with fellow co-workers, community members, and even extended family is something that most people have been forced to avoid during this time. As difficult as it is, if people don’t maintain these social distancing measures the health system can be overrun, which has already been seen in many countries, perhaps most notably in the United States of America and Brazil.
Health authorities like the World Health Organization continue to provide recommendations that governments adopt for their own country-specific strategies, which then filter down into the occupational health solutions for businesses. As an occupational health manager during this time period, you must consistently stay up to date on the latest regulations, and ensure that your workers are kept safe.
While it might seem intuitive for factory workers to don their PPE each shift, for office workers this may not be the case unless they work in a clinical setting. A workplace can have all of the necessary PPE, questionnaires, and protective measures in place to keep employees safe but if they don’t know how to follow them or wear their PPE correctly then they could inadvertently put themselves in harm’s way. For this reason, an occupational health manager may need to institute some socially distanced training and online modules to inform employees about proper PPE usage, and how to conduct themselves while in the office. Online modules can easily be created with health software, and in-person training can be scheduled with it. Changing regulations may mean that training needs to be conducted on a monthly basis, or as needed if the COVID-19 situation stays stable.
The Way Forward
It is impossible to know what the next few months will bring, and whether or not the second wave of COVID-19 will see the world come to a standstill once more. The European Union has opened its borders, and is allowing tourism from specific countries. This increase in movement, and lack of 14-day self-quarantines may lead to an explosion of COVID-19 cases once more.
Hopefully, countries that have managed their COVID-19 response well will continue to see a decline in the amount of cases being reported, so that the domestic economy can see an upswing. For most workers, the return to the office or other workspace may herald a return to normalcy. Supplier risk management, and vendor risk management, along with managing the risk of a company itself must now be at the forefront of all pandemic plans. It is important that everyone works together during this time, and in the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Public Health Officer for Canada’s province British Columbia, who has become internationally renowned for her pandemic response, “Be calm, be kind, and be safe.” We must all continue to work together, if from afar to keep each other safe.