When news was initially released that Wuhan, China was impacted by the coronavirus, EI immediately launched a series of weekly educational blogs in mid-January highlighting pragmatic occupational health and industrial hygiene practices which minimize the possibility of coronavirus transmission in the workplace The blog series has since covered the following topics:

1. Business Contingency Plans to include coronavirus pandemic planning
2. Respiratory Protection – N95’s vs. Surgical Masks
3. Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) – Monitoring/corrective measures to minimize airborne COVID-19
4. Cleaning & Disinfection – Cleaning, Disinfection and Verification Protocol as well as optimal EPA List N disinfectants and the importance of their proper application
5. Employee Medical Screening – Detailed Guidance for identifying potential carriers of COVID-19

The background information in EI’s blog series builds an excellent foundation for a comprehensive plan to minimize occupational transmission of COVID-19 when reopening businesses.

Greg Lathan

Initial Steps for Returning to Work
Once your community is no longer requiring significant mitigation policies in response to COVID-19, social distancing will be gradually relaxed. This prudent “step by step” approach should also be followed when re-staffing business operations.

1.  When planning your return to work program over the next several weeks, identify critical business functions and prioritize them to limit staffing as much as feasible.
2.   During the early stages of reopening, limit the inclusion of non-essential employees and those who can continue to perform work remotely from home.
3.   Employee populations at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 infection, especially individuals over 65 and those with a history of pulmonary, cardiac or auto-immune issues, should be prudently returned to work with additional precautions.
4.   Staff essential processes so employees can remain at least 6 feet apart, if possible. If social distancing is not feasible in certain areas of a commercial/office space or the production floor, make certain to have protective measures in place to minimize pathogen transmission.
5.   While PPE remains in short supply, employees should wear surgical mask or similar protection, especially given the CDC’s recently revised position on wearing them in public.

As the number of coronavirus cases continues its hopeful decline, slowly ramp-up staffing to those levels before COVID-19 social distancing policies were initiated. Hopefully, the decline of COVID-19 cases in your community over the next several months will result in a relaxing of current social distancing guidelines, eventually allowing for more normal interaction between employees. 

Ongoing Monitoring of Employees
Once a staged return-to-work plan has been developed and communicated to all employees, your operation should develop an ongoing employee monitoring plan to identify potential COVID-19 carriers BEFORE they enter the workplace. 
Since routine, self-administered COVID-19 antibody and serum screening tests are still not readily available (with many of these products exhibiting a high rate of false positives and prioritized for use in the healthcare industry), medical screening of employees in the workplace for coronavirus symptoms or potential exposure to others infected with COVID-19 should be performed on a daily basis. Employees who are symptomatic should be required to stay at home. A detailed action plan should be developed for any employee identified as a potential coronavirus carrier. Streamlined communication channels should be developed and tested within the workplace and for those employees working remotely. Finally, a triage should be established between local healthcare operations, State/local government and your Human Resources/Occupational Health professionals.

Essential Health and Safety Workplace Initiatives Aimed at Preventing COVID-19 Transmission 
Immediately promote a campaign to develop a culture of healthy hygiene practices among your workforce. Highlight sound bloodborne pathogen management practices by encouraging frequent hand washing/sanitization, as well as use of surgical masks to minimize pathogen transmission. Initiate efforts to procure the necessary PPE deemed adequate to protect employees (which may be a challenge). Intensify efforts targeted at disinfection of horizontal surfaces, especially those most susceptible to coronavirus contamination and human contact. Perform an indoor air quality assessment and HVAC system evaluation to assure enough ambient air is being introduced into the facility to dilute potential airborne contaminants such as COVID-19. Enforce procedures that promote social distancing. 

Below are some excellent suggestions from the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) to provide adequate distancing between employees include: 

Creation of additional break spaces. Modification of traffic flow by designating some doors for “entry-only” and others for “exit-only” (be mindful of fire code).
Staggering of break and lunch periods. Frequently promote social distancing and other protective measures by including them into routine training programs and meetings between employees and their Supervisors, HSE Managers and Human Resources.
Limit numbers of employees in locker, break and dining areas. If possible, conduct meetings through online meeting applications.
Employees with offices should be required to eat and take their breaks in their offices to minimize social congregation. Communicate site specific protocols to temporary employees, sales professionals, truck drivers and other visitors to minimize coronavirus transmission.
Enforcement of social distancing at outside eating and smoking areas. Attempt to conduct all employee screening from employee vehicles as they arrive to work or outside while maintaining adequate social distancing.
Removal of excess chairs from break/dining/conference rooms to allow for adequate social distancing.

How Can We Help?
Resources abound as you develop a phased approach to reopening your business. The American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI’s) Roadmap to Reopening details a stepwise approach with tangible milestones and markers to assist your planning team. We’re all eager to return to the way of life we were accustomed to before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As your business begins easing social distancing restrictions, careful planning is imperative. The EI Group’s team of occupational health, industrial hygiene and safety professionals is here to support you as you navigate the challenges of returning to work. If you have any questions regarding return-to-work planning, please don’t hesitate to contact EI at (800) 717-3472, email Greg Lathan, President at [email protected].