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How to Keep Your Employees Safe if You Can't Stop Production During COVID-19 Outbreak

This article was originally published on Thomas.

Across the U.S., governors have been passing executive orders mandating workers to stay at home to prevent the further spread of coronavirus. But a select number of businesses, including some manufacturing, construction, and trucking companies, have been instructed to continue their business operations due to their critical nature.

For those still at work, the virus presents a much greater threat, which means employers must implement stringent, new health and safety protocols. Here are seven steps to help keep your employees safe and ensure that the essential work your company delivers can continue.

1. Develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends organizations develop a guide that outlines protective actions against the coronavirus for their workforce.

The guide should be informed by the instructions and guidance from federal and state health agencies. It should also analyze how and where employees are most likely to be exposed to the virus and the impact these current circumstances will have on the company – including increased employee absence, reduced operations, interrupted supply chains and delays.

Ultimately, the guide will communicate comprehensive instructions to all employees regarding policies and procedures during the ongoing pandemic, based on each company’s circumstances.

2. Assess your employees on a case-by-case basis

It’s highly unlikely you’ll need to keep your entire workforce on-site. The fewer people coming through your doors each day, the better. Anyone who can carry out their job from home should do so, while non-essential workers should also stay away.

When deciding which of your employees are mission-critical, it’s also important to consider their individual health concerns. It’s widely understood that older people or those with certain underlying health conditions are at a much higher risk of developing severe coronavirus symptoms and being hospitalized.

Conduct a thorough analysis of your employees to establish who is most vulnerable and think carefully about how you can further protect them. Do they really need to be there?

It’s also important to consider pregnant people within your workforce and the fact that your employees could be co-habiting with high-risk people they wish to protect.

3. Stagger your workforce

Once you’ve identified your critical workforce, it’s time to figure out how frequently you’ll need them in the workplace. To limit employee-employee contact as much as possible, and to ensure your entire workforce is not exposed to the virus at once, it would be prudent to implement staggered working. Employees could either work alternate days (or weeks) or you could stagger shift times throughout the day to reduce crossover time. This would also allow time between shifts for enhanced sanitation and cleaning before the next team begins working. 

Assuming you’ve implemented an overall reduction in the number of employees coming into your workplace, you should have additional space available to increase the distance between workers.

Try to reduce off-site visits (and minimize the number of participants when they are absolutely necessary), by switching to video conferencing wherever possible. Be sure to monitor and abide by travel updates and warnings via the CDC website.

4. Improve hygiene and sanitation in the workplace

There are several simple measures employers and employees alike can follow to improve workplace hygiene and reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Employers should:

  • Encourage all employees to observe good hygiene practices, providing advice such as information on the importance of frequent, thorough handwashing.

  • Provide soap and alcohol-based hand rubs throughout the workplace.

  • Provide tissues and trash cans throughout the workplace.

  • Provide plentiful equipment (phones, desks, tools, etc.) so employees do not need to share.

  • Regularly clean and disinfect the workplace including all surfaces, doors, handles, production machinery operating panels, etc.

Employees should:

  • Wash hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds when entering and leaving the workplace and after handling equipment.

  • Regularly use the alcohol-based hand sanitizer provided.

  • Cover your mouth when coughing and sneezing and use tissues provided (see point 5).

  • Not share any equipment with colleagues.

  • Observe the six-foot rule when interacting with colleagues (but limit interaction to the bare minimum).

You may even consider assigning an employee to focus solely on sanitation, moving throughout the facility and offices to ensure that all shared workspaces, surfaces, door handles, and other areas are consistently cleaned.

5. Clearly communicate company policy for sick employees

Know the coronavirus symptoms (cough, high temperature, and shortness of breath) and ensure all employees understand what to look out for and the company’s rules for self-isolation.

An employee displaying coronavirus symptoms should immediately report to a manager so they can be sent home to self-isolate for 14 days.

6. Reassure employees

Understandably, the spread of coronavirus is causing heightened stress for a lot of people. Your employees will likely be concerned about job security, sick pay, and other company policies that could impact them and their families.

If employees are anxious about losing a portion of their salary, they are less likely to be compliant with self-isolation regulations. For this reason, companies are encouraged to depart from their usual policies to implement flexible sick leave policies that align with the current public health guidance.

Make sure you communicate your policies calmly and coherently and answer any questions your employees have. Be understanding that employees might need to stay at home to care for children and sick relatives and try to find ways to accommodate this.

7. Provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and training as necessary

Depending on the levels of risks your employees will be exposed to, you may choose to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This includes protective clothing such as gloves, goggles, masks, face shields, and respiratory protection.

There is currently a severe shortage of PPE in the U.S., but availability is expected to improve as manufacturers convert operations to produce PPE. Once sourced, these items should be assigned to employees based on their role and likelihood of virus exposure. Training should be provided to ensure items are fitted properly and worn as required.

Reusable equipment should be regularly inspected, cleaned, and stored carefully, while single-use PPE should be disposed of in such a way so as not to spread the disease further.

PPE does not replace other prevention techniques such as handwashing and cleaning surfaces.

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