Tips for reopening your business during the pandemic

| Featured News, OSHA, USF Safety Florida

William Tomlin

Written by: William Tomlin, USF SafetyFlorida Health Supervisor

SARS-CoV-2 has swept the nation, leaving many of us to grapple with how to best protect our employees.  We as safety professionals are facing  serious challenges in protecting our employees and preventing infections at our facilities. With the shelter-in-place orders lifting, we will have workers or office staff returning to our workplaces. 

This article presents a few items that should be considered when reopening your workplace. These suggestions were taken from a webinar provided by the Texas OTIEC, hosted by Dan Rosenthal of Workplace Nurses, LLC.

We are all familiar with the OSHA hierarchy for addressing hazards in our workplace. Using that frame work, let’s look at ways of reducing COVID-19 exposure to employees.

  • The first step in the hierarchy is to eliminate the hazard. In this case, we will focus on  microbial reservoirs. The facility should empty trash cans (twice daily) and only use self-closing trash cans. This also requires daily cleaning of all bathrooms and breakrooms, as well as daily cleaning of the public refrigerator in the breakroom.  Disposable cups and utensils should replace any re-useable items. All shared office equipment and high-touch areas should be disinfected, i.e. – copier machines, printers and fax machines, if used. The facility should plan for a monthly deep cleaning of carpets and all miscellaneous office furniture.
  • Implementing engineering controls is the next step in the hierarchy. To ensure proper social distancing, there should be individual work stations separated by barriers. We typically refer to these barriers as cubicle farms. They are effective  in providing space between employees.  Work spaces should no longer be set up with groups of desks facing each other; nor should conference rooms be used for meetings. If someone in the facility has to interact with the public, install a plexiglass screen to act as a barrier.  There should be a review of the building’s ventilation system to increase the fresh air percentage into the room. Additionally, consider upgrading the filtration media used to a HEPA system.
  • The third level in the hierarchy requires implementing work practice controls. First, encourage sick employees to stay at home. This may require changes in Human Resource policies; however, we will discuss that later. Next, a management representative should conduct health screenings daily for returning employees. This could be a short questionnaire that focuses on the following aspects: how they feel currently; if any travel occurred within the last 12 hours; if any family members are sick. If possible conduct temperature checks on employees before allowing them to enter the building. Any type of screening policy should also apply to visitors or vendors entering your location.
  • Frequent and effective hand washing by employees should be required, promoted, and enforced. Ensure there is hot water at each sink, and train on the (20 seconds) method of hand washing. Supply disposable paper towels or effective hot air driers in each restroom. Post signage suggesting or requiring frequent handwashing throughout the work day. It may sound dictatorial but there should be some type of observation in place to ensure employees are engaging in proper hand washing.  If there is non-compliance, there should be disciplinary action. This may sound harsh; however,  one individual could re-contaminate previously cleaned areas.
  • Employees should be prompted to conduct regular cleaning of work surfaces within their work area. This includes their desk, keyboard, mouse or any other electronic equipment at the workstation. This implies management has to keep a supply of these cleaning materials available. This may require daily emptying of the trash can at their desk, if it is not done by a service. Finally, Management should promote, enforce and allow for sufficient time  clean-up to occur.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is the last stage of the hierarchy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has many recommendations regarding the use of the N95 filter face piece. These masks are considered to be a respirator, and OSHA has detailed requirements for a written program with medical evaluation and fit testing. Cloth masks have also been recommended by the CDC to prevent the spread of the virus. Face shields are useful but may be cumbersome in some situations. Some employees may want to wear gloves during their work shift. However, gloves should be changed frequently, or after immediately upon completing some cleaning tasks. Keeping the same pair on all day just makes them a reservoir for microbial materials.

Finally, to have an effective program, written policies must be reviewed periodically to ensure they are following the latest CDC guidelines.  Management should develop and publish  the written policy to all employees. The facility should review Human Resources policies regarding attendance and sick leave/absenteeism allowing extra leave (paid or unpaid) and eliminating any prohibitive rules regarding attendance.

Developing a return to work policy can be difficult; however, there are several excellent resources available. They include:

OSHA: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/

CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/guidance-list.html?Sort=Date%3A%3Adesc

Florida Department of Health: https://floridahealthcovid19.gov/

USF SafetyFlorida: https://health.usf.edu/publichealth/cohpe/usfsafetyflorida