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How To Prevent A COVID-19 Breakout In Your Office

How To Prevent A COVID-19 Breakout In Your Office

It’s Halloween 2020. On October 31, you find yourself at a haunted house. Upon entry, you see the normal: clowns, chainsaws, ghosts, and masked killers. You’ve survived thus far, but then your heart drops. Blocking your exit are people dressed in street clothes, looking at you fearfully. They then do the unthinkable: cough. 

Did you ever anticipate your greatest fear to be a cough? Nobody did. A lot of things are different now, but that’s just one of the many changes that have come out of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. The next thing that you need to consider is how you are going to prevent your workspace from having a COVID-19 outbreak.

How will an outbreak affect your workplace?

It’s a no-brainer that if your employees are infected with the COVID-19 virus, there will be a negative effect on your workplace. This goes beyond health and safety, though. An outbreak in your workplace could hinder productivity because of absenteeism; even if employees aren’t sick, they might be staying at home with sick loved ones.

Additionally, an outbreak in the office could interrupt regular operations: if your Marketing Manager is out with COVID-19, their responsibilities might not get taken care of as quickly as they did before they left. Not only that, but employee morale might plummet as fear for the wellbeing of their fellow employees and themselves rises. 

Also Read: The Role of Business in Response to COVID-19

What are some steps to take to reduce worker risk?

  1. Create an infectious disease and response preparedness and plan

An infectious disease and response preparedness plan is an effective way to ensure that your employees know what to do to protect themselves from COVID-19. This plan is not one size fits all; every individual company should have a plan that meets their specific needs.

However, all of these preparedness plans must follow updated rules and regulations from the federal, state, and local entities under which they are governed. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration outlines different factors to consider when creating this preparedness plan. They are:

  • Where, how, and to what sources of SARS-CoV-2 might workers be exposed, including:
    • The general public, customers, and coworkers; and 
    • Sick individuals or those at particularly high risk of infection (e.g., international travelers who have visited locations with widespread sustained (ongoing) COVID-19 transmission, healthcare workers who have unprotected exposures to people known to have, or suspected of having, COVID-19).
  • Non-occupational risk factors at home and in community settings.
  • Workers’ individual risk factors (e.g., older age; the presence of chronic medical conditions, including immunocompromising conditions; pregnancy). 
  • Controls necessary to address those risks.”
  1. Implement basic prevention measures 

There are more changes needed than those put to pen and paper. Your employees are going to have higher hygienic and sanitary expectations than before, but these things shouldn’t be too difficult to manage. There are things that your employees can do to stay safe in and out of the office. 

In-office prevention measures

  • Social distancingemployees, and visitors should stay six feet apart
  • PPE use – employees are encouraged to use masks, gloves, and other forms of Personal Protective Equipment 
  • Respiratory etiquette – employees should cover every cough and sneeze
  • Frequent handwashing and hand sanitizer use – handwashing is preferable to using hand sanitizer, but if that is not an option, hand sanitizer must have at least 60% alcohol
  • Less use of other employee supplies and property – if possible, employees should only use their own equipment and materials, but if unavoidable, employees should clean items in between users
  • Routine cleaning of surfaces – periodically, employees should clean their workspace and other high-contact areas to avoid the spread of germs and bacteria

At-home prevention measures

  • Only essential travel – employees should be encouraged to stay at home when possible and eliminate nonessential travel
  • Social distancing – social distancing should be practiced even when off the clock, and contact with other people should be as limited as possible
  • Staying home if symptoms arise – employers should strongly encourage their employees to stay at home if symptoms of COVID-19 arise or the employee feels unwell in general
  • Frequent handwashing and hand sanitizer use – fundamental hygienic measures should be encouraged in the home setting as well
  1. Identify and isolate sick employees if needed

Should an employee contract the virus, it is of the utmost importance that your workplace handles the issue promptly and in its entirety. This will help to prevent the transmission of the virus to other employees or visitors in your business. This can be done in a few ways.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has a guide to keeping workplaces safer during this interim period. In it, they list several helpful pieces of information about how to prevent and reduce transmission among employees. One of the things the CDC recommends to keep the workplace safe is conducting employee health checks. However, this must be done in a specific way, and caution must be used. 

“Consider conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks (e.g., symptom and/or temperature screening) of employees before they enter the facility, in accordance with state and local public health authorities and, if available, your occupational health services:

  • If implementing in-person health checks, conduct them safely and respectfully. Employers may use social distancing, barrier or partition controls, or personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect the screener. However, reliance on PPE alone is a less effective method of control and is more difficult to implement, given PPE shortages and training requirements.
  • Complete the health checks in a way that helps maintain social distancing guidelines, such as providing multiple screening entries into the building.
  • Follow guidance from the Equal Opportunity Commission regarding the confidentiality of medical records from health checks. 
  • To prevent stigma and discrimination in the workplace, make employee health screenings as private as possible. Do not make determinations of risk based on race or country of origin and be sure to maintain the confidentiality of each individual’s medical status and history.”

Another practice that the CDC recommends implementing is the process of separating sick employees. This should be done as follows:

Separate sick employees

  • Create a procedure in case an employee in-office becomes sick while at work. This might include the emergency transportation of a sick employee to a medical facility.
  • Identify a sick employee by administering a health check or observing symptoms; employees could also bring forth that they are exhibiting symptoms. Ideally, this would be brought to management’s attention in some way upon the employee’s arrival. 
  • Immediately separate the sick employee from all other employees and visitors.
  • Safely send the employee home or to a healthcare provider with instructions to not return until symptoms have ceased for the specified number of days mandated in that area. 
  1. Implement workplace controls

Workplace controls are an efficient method or process to eliminate the possibility of risks to employee safety. These elements are set by management, and the employees are required to abide by any rules that might coincide with these standards. 

In this pandemic, workplace controls certainly seem like a valiant effort at keeping employees safe whilst doing their job. However, attempting to create dozens of new rules and regulations for employees to abide by all at the same time might seem overwhelming. As an employer, you must pick and choose any new workplace controls you implement. There are some that would be more helpful than others, though, and they are as follows:

  • Engineering controls – These are physical additions to the building itself to make it less of a breeding ground for bacteria and more difficult for employees and visitors to contaminate the air. Some engineering controls might include installing a drive-thru window for limited contact service, high-efficiency air filters, and physical barriers like sneeze guards. 
  • Administrative controls – Anything that management changes in regard to employee procedure and operations might be considered an administrative control: developing emergency plans for outbreaks, training employees on the proper use of PPE, discontinuing nonessential business travel. Administrative controls can even be as simple as encouraging workers with symptoms to stay at home and discouraging close contact between employees and visitors.  
  • PPE – By requiring employees to wear gloves and a mask while in the office, the number of respiratory droplets that are spread through the air and into the air passageways of anyone inside the building will be reduced. It is smart to keep extra supplies on hand, but since certain PPE is in short supply, this might be difficult. Alternately, employees and visitors alike could be turned away at the door if they are not equipped with the proper protective equipment. 
  1. Follow existing OSHA standards 

Believe it or not, none of the previously listed items are current health standards; they are only strongly recommended. Because the conditions surrounding the pandemic are changing so quickly, recommendations are updated very frequently. There are some existing OSHA standards that relate to COVID-19, though, that your business should follow. 

  • “OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards (in general industry, 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I), which require using gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection. 
    • When respirators are necessary to protect workers or where employers require respirator use, employers must implement a comprehensive respiratory protection program in accordance with the Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134)
  • The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, 29 USC 654(a)(1), which requires employers to furnish to each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

To sum things up

There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and the necessary changes that are being made can be stressful to implement. However, protecting your employees and visitors is an important priority. Hopefully, with the help of these tips, your workplace will have more of a fighting chance against a COVID-19 outbreak in the office. This won’t make coughing any less scary, and it won’t guarantee that you’ll escape that haunted house unscathed, but it sure will help reduce the negative side-effects of that dreaded act.