COVID-19 has created a lot of daunting unknowns and endless questions for businesses as they begin to think about what resuming “normal operations” might look like. When should employees come back to the office? What precautions need to be in place? What personal protective equipment needs to be acquired? How do we provide assurance to our customers? What we do know is that the COVID-19 recovery will take some time and a measured and safety-first approach to re-opening will be critical for public health. And while there is no one prescription that will fit all, we would like to outline a few best practices to consider before employees and customers return to your physical offices and stores.
Have a Plan
It’s important to have a well thought out plan and to ensure it’s in compliance with local, state, and federal regulations prior to re-opening a business. A first step would be to check in with local authorities on any new directives applicable to your location and industry. You will need to understand how the directives and requirements will impact the timing for re-opening. It is possible the directives may require your business to open at different times or levels of operation. Develop an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan. Review OSHA's Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19
Building Operations / HVAC
HVAC equipment needs to be examined prior to re-opening or expanding operations of your business. Buildings that have been sitting empty pose a potential danger if there is water sitting in pipes or if air quality or temperature hasn’t been monitored or maintained. Sitting water can create waterborne pathogens including Legionnaires' disease, which causes some of the same symptoms as COVID-19. If humidity isn’t controlled when temperatures and conditions change in empty buildings, it can cause the growth of mold or bacteria. Failure to preemptively assess these situations could cause harm to employee or public health, cause more financial burdens, or even create a stigma of being an unhealthy building or business. The Building Owners and Management Association (BOMA) offers guidance on considerations for bringing a building back into service following: Getting Back to Work: Preparing Buildings for Re-Entry Amid COVID-19. The EPA presents HVAC guidance that HVAC Guidance Building and Maintenance Professionals can follow to help protect from COVID-19.
Workspace Decontamination & Cleaning
Depending on how long your workplace has been closed, or to what degree you’ve been operating, the virus may or may not be alive on surfaces. Even so, a good cleaning will be needed if your operations have been closed or limited. Check the EPA website for reference on what types of disinfectants and cleaning products are recommended. Think about highly used surfaces such as door handles and light switches, as well as those you may not usually clean on a regular basis such as shelving, pictures, lighting, etc. where droplets could have landed if someone sneezed. You can also catalog your surfaces, types of surfaces, and come up with a frequency for cleaning and product types needed.
Personal Protective Equipment Needs
Consider what pre-opening supplies are required prior to anyone (employees, customers, or third parties) entering the space. You need to ensure you have the right personal protective equipment (PPE) as required, and the right cleaning, disinfectant, and personal hygiene products available. PPE could include gloves or masks and it’s important to consider proper usage, training, and fit. If these supplies can’t be secured, that will push out the actual timeframe of when the business can open, so it’s important to create a plan ahead of time. For Health Care and Public Health Professionals, the CDC offers Strategies to Optimize the Supply of PPE and Equipment.
The CDC offers a Coronavirus Self-Checker to help you make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care. This system is not intended for the diagnosis or treatment of disease or other conditions, including COVID-19, and is intended only for people who are currently located in the United States. The federal guidelines indicate that worker temperature checks are a guideline as a consideration sanctioned by the CDC. Unfortunately, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have not published guidance on the topic of how to conduct these health checks. On March 17, 2020, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued an update to its guidance that now expressly acknowledges that employers may implement temperature screening measures in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The EEOC noted that “because the CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 and issued attendant precautions, employers may measure employees’ body temperature.” The EEOC cautions employers to “be aware that some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever.”
Workspace Occupancy Planning
You should map out common areas and working spaces to ensure there is enough room for social distancing as required. This may mean reconfiguring some workspaces or installing physical barriers between spaces. If you have conference rooms, you may need to limit how many people are allowed in the room together. You could consider posting signs to help enforce this new routine, or even taking out chairs or equipment to fit the correct number of people in smaller spaces to allow for social distancing.
Once you have a good idea of what activities, supplies, and timing are required, having incorporated the requirements and guidelines provided by recognized authorities, it’s important to draft communications to your employees and stakeholders (customers, contractors, vendors, etc.) on these details and what expectations you have of them. You can outline what activities your business is undertaking prior to re-opening, what supplies, protective gear, or cleaning products are available, and the timing for opening. Additionally, if there are new routines or procedures, those should be communicated to employees in advance. It would be valuable to 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). This will give everyone peace of mind as they encounter the new normal.
In addition to the activities we have outlined, you will likely have more specific guidelines and tasks to undertake related to your industry or business. If you have access to industry groups, resources, or local guidelines specific to your business or industry, we suggest you look into those for specific recommendations. Re-opening a retail business looks very different from re-opening a manufacturing facility. The amount of person-to-person contact will vary based on the number of employees, frequency of visitors, and type of public interaction.
Helpful resources to monitor on an ongoing basis:
- Federal Occupational Safety and Health Covid-19 websites
- OSHA Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19
- Centers for Disease Control Covid-19 website
- American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)
Our team at Antea Group 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. With resources across the globe, we are actively assisting our clients with their health and safety needs during this difficult time.
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