Businesses, on the whole, seem to be taking a cautious approach as they open their doors again after the nationwide shutdown that was intended to slow the coronavirus pandemic’s spread. But since the virus is still with us, employers must take care to address the risks so that returning to work during COVID-19 is as safe as possible. Here are key considerations:
- Make testing and treatment a foundation of returning to work during COVID-19. Testing still isn’t widely accessible in all parts of the US, but being proactive can help prevent an outbreak. Employees should be screened with temperature checks before they start work each day and encouraged to stay home if they have symptoms. This is where mentoring employees on expectations is helpful, supplemented by testing when it becomes available. Have a contact tracing strategy in the event cases do develop. Various apps can help you with this function.
- Administrative controls will spell out policies for a safer workplace. In being adjusted for the times, policies must encompass everything from personal hygiene to how work shifts are scheduled and ways social distancing will be maintained. Hygiene starts with an aggressive stance on hand-washing and against coming to work sick, but extends to how frequently shared spaces are cleaned and sanitized. This protects visitors and employees returning to work during COVID-19, but also protects employers against potential negligence claims. Maintaining social distancing can be a bigger challenge, making an official policy important for specifying out expectations and consequences when they aren’t met. Another concern is heightened risk from outside parties entering the premises; non-essential guests should be limited in the immediate future.
- Workplace controls mean an entirely new physical environment. Your people returning to work during COVID-19 may wonder where they are. Since shared spaces (and equipment, too) are an invitation for viral spread, open offices may need to be revisited and replaced with individual offices and cubicle walls. Conference room seating should be staggered. The break room, with its coffee pot and microwave, should be closed down, too. More than that, ventilation and air circulation need to be considered, and a logistics map may be helpful as you consider how to remove risk from the way people physically move into and through the workplace.
- Ready your policy for employees at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Those with pre-existing conditions are especially vulnerable returning to work during COVID-19. It’s important to protect them without jeopardizing the business. The government has offered guidance on employers’ duties. Your actions should also be guided by legal counsel. It’s important to understand who in your employee population might be affected. However, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the “interactive process” of working out reasonable accommodation should not start unless the employee requests it — after disclosing the condition. Remember, though: No employees should be excluded from the workplace solely based on their health risk.
While that’s good news, we all should be concerned because the virus is still with us, so the risk of contagion remains.