There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the economy all the way down to small towns across the US and their local businesses. With the gradual lifting of restrictions and entry into subsequent phases of pandemic response and reopening, we are left with a patchwork of businesses in different stages of reopening, shutting down again, or partially reopening. At any stage, employers should have a plan in place to ensure the safety of their employees, clients, and patrons to their offices, stores, and businesses.
Establishing a plan to implement control measures to ensure the safety of employees and visitors is imperative to the success of businesses. “Not only is it morally responsible to plan ahead and reduce risk of exposure in the workplace, in many areas of the world, it is a legal requirement. It is never too early to take a step back, reset, and plan the recovery of your business,” Bethany Stuckey, CSP with Antea Group. With these simple steps and suggestions as your guide, it can be a little less complicated. We have worked with numerous businesses across the globe and bring a cohesive and consistent approach on how to safely reopen infusing learnings and best practices.
COVID-19 return to office planning should consist of a thorough evaluation of the following aspects of your business, at a minimum, and the development of controls to reduce the risk of exposure:
- Ensuring the building is in good condition and safe;
- Making adjustments to the facility layout and capacity to ensure physical distancing can be maintained;
- Cleaning and disinfection procedures, including the use of approved products and increased frequency of cleaning and disinfection activities;
- Health screening considerations, investigations of suspected cases and associated reporting requirements;
- An assessment of services and operations to identify and control risks of exposure; and
- How control measures and procedures will be communicated to employees, clients, and patrons
Additional considerations may apply depending on the nature of the business. Whenever possible, businesses should consider providing services and conducting operations remotely according to local guidance.
Building Safety and Preparation
The safety of the building must be addressed prior to reopening. Buildings left unattended for periods of time without proper maintenance and assessment present a variety of risks to individuals when occupancy resumes. Savvy building owners can reduce costs by turning off or adjusting air handling units while buildings are unoccupied. This is all well and good, until it is time for the occupants to return.
A lack of air flow and circulation increases the risk of stagnant air or stuffiness and in the right conditions, can result in the growth of mold or mildew. Prior to allowing occupants to re-enter their spaces, turn on air handling units and verify air flow to ensure they are operational. Check the thermostat temperature readings and verify it is accurate and within reason. Sensors that are out of calibration waste energy by calling for heating and cooling when it is not necessary or fail to provide heating and cooling to keep occupants comfortable.
In addition to indoor air quality, unattended buildings can retain stagnant water in piping and increase the risk of the presence of legionella, bacteria that can cause a pneumonia-type disease, legionellosis. Before occupants return to the building, all water sources should be flushed and possibly tested to ensure they are safe for use.
Lastly, emergency notification and response equipment must be inspected to ensure they are operational. Local regulations mays require emergency alarm systems, fire suppression systems, portable fire extinguishers, and other equipment to be in place and properly inspected. Ensure the inspections are in compliance before reopening. Remember to check first aid kits and cabinets to ensure any expired materials, medications, or products are removed and replaced. Also ensure any automated external defibrillators (AEDs) are inspected and charged.
Access and Social Distancing
To plan for building occupancy, assess the layout and operations to determine where, when, and how employees, clients, or patrons could be exposed to COVID-19. This can be conducted by walking through day to day operations, step by step. Consider how the building is accessed, where access points are and where in the building individuals may be in close contact with others (i.e. elevators, breakrooms, kitchens, stair wells, conference rooms, hallways, restrooms, etc.). As you begin to identify these areas, consider how potential exposure can be minimized. In breakrooms, for example, installing foot operated door openers reduces the need for individuals to touch door handles. Blocking access to every other restroom stall or every other sink helps to ensure social distancing can be maintained, and increasing the frequency of cleaning and disinfection of restrooms is yet another way to reduce risk of exposure. These are just a few examples of ways that businesses can protect their employees, clients, and patrons.
Evaluate the facility layout and determine the most effective options for ensuring social distancing can be maintained. Establishing directional paths and identifying them using signage, floor markings, or retractable belt barriers reduces the risk of individuals having to come within 6 feet of physical distance from each other. Consider reconfiguring workspaces or installing physical barriers between them. This should be done in waiting areas, areas where lines form for services, hallways, office spaces, and anywhere else where it is feasible.
Cleaning and Disinfection
Depending on what degree the business has been operating, the virus may or may not be alive on surfaces. A good cleaning is appropriate if your operations have been closed or limited. Check the EPA List N Tool to identify types of disinfectants and cleaning products recommended for use against COVID-19. Ensure the cleaning and disinfection frequency of high touch surfaces, such as door handles and light switches, as well as those you may not usually clean on a regular basis including shelving, pictures, lighting, etc., is increased. Establish an inventory of high touch surfaces and identify an appropriate cleaning and disinfection protocol.
The use of health questionnaires (health checks) and temperature screening prior to permitting individuals access to businesses is growing. If the business plans to conduct health checks and temperature screenings, it is important to research any applicable legal requirements, especially relating to personal medical conditions and record confidentiality. Only implement health checks and temperature screening according to applicable Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) legal requirements and ensure the individuals conducting the checks and screenings are properly trained and protected from exposure to potentially infected individuals.
Assessing Operations and Services
It should be widely understood that operations and services cannot yet be conducted as they were prior to the pandemic. Assess operations and services provided at the business and determine where the risk of exposure to an infected individual is likely to be the highest. Consider tasks that require employees to work in close proximity to other employees, clients, or patrons, or where employees or patrons may come into contact with frequently touched surfaces. Prioritize these high risk areas activities and identify controls.
Planning the return to operations should include consideration of the hierarchy of controls. The hierarchy of controls is a system used to minimize or eliminate exposure to hazards by considering the following options:
- Elimination: Consider having employees work from home to eliminate the hazard in the workplace
- Substitution: Enforce social distancing
- Engineering Control: Implement a health screening process, install plexiglass barriers.
- Administrative Control: Signage, training, hand washing enforcement. Personal protective equipment (PPE): Enforce mask use
The most effective way to prevent exposure to infected individuals is to eliminate the possibility altogether, which may be conducted through providing services or operations remotely. This is not always feasible based on the types of services and operations. If the risk of contact with a potentially infected individual cannot be eliminated, consider installing barricades and barriers between employees, or between employees and their clients or patrons. Examples of this control include installing permanent plastic barriers in service counters or barriers on tables, desks, or between assembly line stations to provide a physical barrier between individuals. If the need for physical interaction is critical to business services and operations, consider controls such as; requiring individuals to use hand sanitizer, clean and disinfect surfaces between interactions, enforce social distancing, or reduce the number of individuals allowed in an area at a time.
If processes and procedures still do not completely eliminate the risk of exposure to potentially infected individuals, employee use of PPE, such as gloves or face shields, in addition to the use of cloth face coverings should be required. Refer to the CDC and the website for the local health departments for applicable requirements for face coverings and PPE.
Outline the controls, processes, and procedures identified during the assessment process and determine what supplies, protective gear, or cleaning products are necessary and determine when reopening will occur.
Communication and Training
New routines, controls, and procedures should be communicated to employees in advance of returning to the workplace. Introduce the communication as a living document that will be revised in real-time as new information is made available (perhaps as an electronic notification) and provide employee training. This allows for peace of mind as employees enter the new normal. In addition to communicating the changing requirements and expectations to employees, ensure these changes are communicated with anyone who may be affected by them, such as the clients, contractors, vendors, or patrons. Ensure regulatory requirements are reviewed and ensure communication and training developed for the business and its employees is in compliance with applicable regulations. Post signage at entrances and in common areas to serve as reminders of the requirements, send out email notifications, post to the company website, or find other ways to disseminate the information.
Review and Verification
Establish a routine for reviewing the plan and implemented controls to verify they are effective. Remember to monitor applicable regulatory requirements, including local, regional, and national mandates to ensure the business maintains compliance. If processes and controls are not effective, explore alternatives and make adjustments. Engage employees, clients, and patrons whenever possible to obtain feedback and determine where potential problems may exist.
Resources and Summary
If you’ve already reopened your business, or if you don’t know when you’ll be able to, develop a plan to ensure the safety of your employees and clients as soon as you can. Planning ahead reduces the struggle of catching up later on and helps ensure the stability of your business as you get back to it. Government agencies and health care organizations provide guidance and safe work practices for businesses to establish plans for returning to the workplace and resuming operations. Industry groups, local government websites, and regulatory agency sites may also provide guidance specific to different industries. Reviewing industry-specific guidance is important to ensure the plan accurately addresses the business risks and needs. For example, the processes and procedures necessary for ensuring the safe reopening of retail businesses is very different than those necessary for manufacturing facilities.
Reviewing government mandates, orders, and guidance can be intimidating and time consuming, but the Antea Group team is here to help! “Our experts in health and safety have the knowledge and experience to help develop preparedness and response plans for pandemics, including COVID-19 and any other emergency condition,” Donna Lynch, Health & Safety Practice Leader at Antea Group. We are currently providing COVID-19 response support for clients in the technology, food and beverage, manufacturing, and retail industries, and for local governments, office spaces, and other various services and industries. With resources across the country and around the globe, we are actively assisting our clients with their health and safety needs during this difficult time.
Editor’s note: This article was written by our partners at Antea Group.
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