Originally published on Insurance Thought Leadership | June 8, 2020
As states reopen, businesses will have to grapple with the challenges of creating a safe environment for both workforce and consumers. Employers have to address a range of issues, like how to mitigate workplace transmission of COVID-19, what workforce challenges to prepare for and how to demonstrate to consumers that they can safely shop at the business.
I enlisted the help of the following three public health experts to discuss best practices for reopening businesses safely:
- Dr. Scott Benson — Associate Professor, Division of Public Health and the Division of Infectious Diseases | University of Utah
- Dr. Steven Lacey — Professor and Chief, Division of Public Health | University of Utah School of Medicine
- Dr. Kimberley Shoaf — Professor and Associate Chief, Community Engagement | University of Utah
- Water intrusion and mold. If a building has been left unattended or with a skeleton crew, water intrusions may go unnoticed and result in mold growth. A certain amount of heat load is typically expected with people in the building, and, without it, water and lack of heat can contribute to mold.
- Water systems. Most large buildings have cooling towers and other evaporative cooling systems. With water not circulating in these systems, naturally occurring legionella bacteria can grow. Turning systems back on can create exposure to the bacteria. Talk to facilities personnel about purging and disinfecting water systems before reactivating.
- HVAC systems. Higher ventilation rates, zone pressurization of fresh air and systems that run longer can help protect employees. Talk to the building manager about optimizing airflow patterns and directional flow to keep contaminated air away from employees. Enhancements such as upgrading to MERV-13 filters to capture viral particles, ensuring that relative humidity ranges between 40% and 60%, will further control exposures to the virus.
- Cleaning and disinfection. Despite the use of these terms interchangeably, there is a significant difference between the two. Cleaning uses a detergent to remove dirt physically from the surface but does not kill all germs. Disinfection is the destruction of those germs at a high percentage, rendering them incapable of reproducing. For guidance on the most effective disinfectants in fighting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, refer to the EPA’s List N.
Preparation for a Returning Workforce
Establish an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan. Characterize potential routes for exposure, task-specific risk factors, available control strategies and a plan for communicating expectations with employees and customers.
- Follow location-specific guidelines. Use resources like federal, state and local guidelines to determine the parameters for your office’s readiness. States vary significantly in terms of their guidelines for reopening, so, if you have locations across the nation, be aware of the differences. Some locations will require a smaller percentage to return to a physical workspace, so have a phasing plan prepared.
- Understand employee risks. Exposure potential will vary greatly depending on job type and other factors. Follow CDC guidelines, and communicate with your HR team to understand which individuals may be at higher risk.
- Know how to handle a sick employee. If someone comes to work sick or falls ill while at work, you need to have a plan to safely isolate and move them out of the workplace while maintaining their confidentiality. Provide onsite responders with the appropriate training and personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect them from potentially sick employees.
- Understand changes to sick leave policies. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) extends coverage under certain circumstances for employers with fewer than 500 employees but more than 50. If your organization is not a part of the FFCRA coverage, flexibility with paid sick leave and extended family and medical leave is crucial to your response.
- Prepare your communication strategy. Communicate your pandemic response to your employees and the general public. Use resources like social media channels, call centers, text messages, emails and recorded video messages to make your response widely known.
Protecting the Workforce and Consumers
- Worker social distancing. For this to be effective, you need compliance from your workforce. Communicate with your employees why it is critical to protect their health as essential members of the business. The goal should be to enable a minimum of six feet of space between individuals. To make it easier to comply, create gender-neutral and single-occupancy bathrooms and close off common gathering areas.
- Consumer social distancing. Just like with your employees, communication with consumers is key to the effectiveness of social distancing. Use passive prevention through design and engineering controls, like arrows on flooring and easy-to-read guidance. Use preferred mechanisms like contactless delivery and curbside pick-up. Separate your entry and exit with barriers between them, directing traffic away from each. Create physical barriers (cough and sneeze guards) at high-contact points, like checkouts and drive-thrus, and limit credit card or cash transactions and encourage no-touch checkouts.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE). Providing necessary PPE to your workforce is crucial to their safety, but it is essential to understand the different types. N95 respirators protect the wearer and should be reserved for healthcare workers at the highest risk of exposure because they are in short supply. Surgical masks protect those around the wearer and are generally used by healthcare workers and other frontline workers at higher risk of exposure from their job. Cloth face coverings help slow the spread of the virus, and the general public is encouraged to wear these.
- Hand hygiene. Make it easy to maintain hand hygiene by stocking paper towels in the bathroom, keeping a trashcan close to the door to discard paper towels and making hand sanitizer readily available.
- Employee education and communication. Provide your employees with the information they need to comply with guidelines. Ensure all information complies with OSHA guidelines and is consistent. Explain the benefits to your employees and consumers.