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Practical Steps Your Company Can Take to Deal with COVID-19

In our previous posts on coronavirus, we’ve discussed the nature of disease spread and the continued risks posed by coronavirus. With this post, we’d like to review other practical steps you can take to protect your business now that the economy is reopening.

There are many resources out there that provide information on how to modify your workspaces, but arguably the best place to start is OSHA’s “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19”. This document is worth going over in detail, but we’ve summarized some of the most important points here.

OSHA takes two separate approaches that will both be useful to business owners. The first involves classifying employees by their level of risk, which can be summarized broadly as follows:

  • Low risk – minimal occupational contact with members of the public and other coworkers
  • Medium risk – frequent and/or close contact with other people
  • High risk – medical, laboratory, and mortuary workers dealing with cases of known or suspected COVID-19
  • Very high risk – medical, laboratory, and mortuary workers engaged in high-risk procedures relating to known or suspected cases of COVID-19

Once you’ve classified your employees based on their risk level, OSHA provides a breakdown of the different kinds of protective measures available. We’ve included some of the examples provided by OSHA, as well as a few others taken from the USI webinar mentioned later on:

  • Engineering controls – do not rely on worker behavior
    • High-efficiency air filters
    • Improving ventilation
    • Physical barriers
    • Eliminating “touch points” (elevators)
    • Locking unnecessary areas that could encourage employees to congregate
    • Reconfiguring hallways to one-way
    • Drive-through for customer service
    • Negative-pressure generation for high-risk areas
  • Administrative controls – rely on changes in work policy
    • Staggered, unmixed work shifts
    • Teleworking whenever possible
    • Discontinuing all non-essential travel, especially to areas with active outbreaks
    • Ensuring that clear responsibilities for managing the situation have been assigned
    • Encouraging individual transportation (by subsidizing parking/other expenses)
    • Mandated visitor protocols (restriction on time of entry, masks, etc.)
    • Maintaining appropriate protocols going to client sites (and restricting those visits as much as possible)
  • Safe work practices – rely on changes in employee behavior
    • Enforcing social distancing and mandating that for customers
    • Handwashing policies, hand sanitizer – providing well-stocked hygiene stations
    • Limit the use of equipment by multiple employees
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) – require proper fitting, regular inspection, and proper decontamination – take care with respect to potential latex allergies
    • Masks
    • Protective gowns
    • Face shield
    • Gloves

The classes of protective measures above are ranked from generally most effective to generally least effective. It makes sense that engineering controls are broadly stronger than safe work practices or PPE, as the latter rely on individual behavior whereas the former do not.

If there has been one lesson to be learned since lockdowns started to ease, it is that shifting responsibility solely to individuals is not advisable. First, there is the part of the population that is actively subverting or discrediting protective measures, for which mandating compliance may be impractical, ineffective, or potentially illegal, depending on the measures. More generally, individuals have the inadvisable tendency of ceasing to practice certain protective behaviors when taking others – for example, in failing to socially distance when wearing masks. Masks provide only limited protection on an individual basis, whereas the 6 ft rule of space between interlocuters is already somewhat arbitrary, and one that individuals tend to infringe upon regardless. This is on top of the reality that individual protective measures must be correctly practiced, which again, is not always the case.

This does not mean that PPE use, for example, should not be encouraged or required in certain contexts, but rather, that it should not be relied upon exclusively, or overused when not called for. In that sense, OSHA provides guidelines for the kinds of interventions appropriate given the level of employee risk.

Generally speaking, low-risk employees do not require engineering controls or PPE to keep them safe – administrative controls and safe work practices are generally enough. This is of course not a universal rule – good ventilation is always advisable, while regular sterilization of work surfaces, which doesn’t cleanly fit into any one of these categories, is always a must. On the other hand, physical barriers are generally a good idea for medium-risk workers, though again, higher level precautions, like negative-pressure controls, really only need to be instituted in health-related settings.

The value of administrative controls should also be taken seriously, as these could effectively shift higher-risk employees into lower-risk categories, as we discussed in our last post. However, proper segmentation can also help to contain internal disease outbreaks once they are imminent, or once they have already occurred.

In this regard, it is first important to assess non-occupational risk factors. For example, an employee in the same house as a sick relative should stay at home, whether or not they are caring for them. Where not possible, these employees should be segmented to the extent possible, and should be subjected to additional controls, including the obligation to wear a high-quality mask (while not great at preventing people from getting sick, masks are still somewhat good at preventing sick people from infecting others). Of course, these same precautions also apply to employees who have tested positive for coronavirus, as well as to those employees that have worked closely with said employees.

The disruption to business that results from these precautions is significant, regardless of how flexible a given business model might be. In that sense, businesses should also consider available administrative, governmental, and insurance resources. USI has an excellent webinar in this regard4. Broadly speaking, USI recommends breaking up employees into groups depending on their relationship with COVID-19 and the workplace, ordered from least likely to return to the office to most:

  • Diagnosed or symptomatic
  • Can work from home
  • Higher risk of illness – 65 or older; underlying conditions
  • Family issues
  • Anxiety
  • Normal

The advantage of this approach to human resource management is that each one of these employee groups can either continue to work in some form, or potentially be covered by some program that would allow them to remain employed while staying at home. For example, Workers’ compensation insurance will tend to pay out coronavirus claims for individuals with coronavirus, provided that it can be demonstrated that they contracted it at work. Meanwhile, those employees who have anxiety about returning to work may not have to do so, and could find coverage under a number of mental health programs.

These programs are an excellent supplement to policies already in place, but are not meant as a replacement; employers should continue to review and maintain their sick day policies to ensure that they are flexible and consistent with the law, and that these standards apply to any contract labor. It is also important to be flexible with employees when determining potential infections; requiring a doctor’s note or positive test to confirm illness is not advisable, least of all because of the importance of not overburdening the health care system and quarantining individuals who may be ill.

Finally, and most importantly, employers must recognize that this situation is continuously evolving, and that there will likely be new peaks as the virus waxes and wanes across populations. As such, it is important to remain vigilant and take additional precautions where possible. While nearly every business is likely to suffer in some form from this pandemic, those that take precautions and stay up-to-date with new developments will certainly withstand the negative effects better than those that don’t.

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