Rick Neitzel: 5 steps employers, employees need to take to reopen businesses

May 20, 2020
Contact: Nardy Baeza Bickel nbbickel@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—Businesses across the nation are preparing to start reopening their workplaces. Rick Neitzel, an expert on occupational and environmental health at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, outlines five steps that employers and employees can take together to return to work in the safest manner possible. Neitzel is associate chair and associate professor of environmental health sciences.

1) Accept the situation: While we all would like for the virus-related disruptions to our lives to be temporary, COVID-19 will continue to affect our lives for quite some time. We need to accept that the changes required to keep workplaces, workers and customers safe are going to be the new norm, and that these changes are necessary in order to reopen businesses safely and to avoid a potentially catastrophic second wave of infections.

U.S. reopening after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image credit: iStock2) Make a plan: Employers need to develop a written infection control plan that identifies potential infection risk factors in the workplace and establishes strategies to control those risks. This plan should be in place before the business reopens, and needs to ask: What is it about the workplace that needs to be changed to make it safer and reduce the risk of virus transmission? Making a plan involves surveying the entire worksite and all of the various work activities that occur there, identifying circumstances in which workers might come into contact with the virus—either by coming into contact with infected people or touching contaminated surfaces—and then figuring out specific steps to minimize the risk of infection. The good news is that state and federal agencies have made resources and guides available to employers to help them develop this plan.

3) Communicate the plan: It’s not enough for an employer to simply develop a plan. Even the best, most thoughtful plan will be ineffective unless it is clearly communicated to workers and, in public-facing workplaces, to customers and clients.

Employers and employees need to have constant, two-way communication to form an effective infection control partnership. Employers need to make sure they’re communicating to workers the changes that are being made in the workplace to reduce infection risk and exactly what is expected of them. Employees need to make sure they fully understand their roles and responsibilities in the new normal. The infection control plan will only be effective if everyone is committed to the common goal of staying healthy as we try to resume activities.

Employers also need to communicate with the public to let customers and clients know what’s being done to keep them safe when they come to the workplace. Many customers may be wary of visiting businesses, and an effective communication plan can help employers convey to these customers how seriously businesses are taking infection prevention. Employees can also play an important role, since they have great opportunities to directly communicate their strong commitment to safety to customers and clients.

Finally, it is important for employees to understand that workplace protections alone are not enough to eliminate the risk of infection. It will still be absolutely critical to maintain social distancing outside the workplace to prevent infections in the community.

4) Implement and follow the plan: There are three layers of infection control that employers should put in place to limit the risk of virus transmission in the workplace. It is important to implement multiple layers to provide the best possible defense against infection.

  • Physical or engineering controls: Redesigning the physical configuration of the workplace and the way the work gets done is the most effective way to prevent virus transmission. This includes changes to ensure that workstations are at least six feet apart or, where that’s not possible, placing physical barriers (for example, plexiglass sheets or clear shower curtains) between workers. Other changes include altering or slowing the timing of work activities so that workers do not need to be in the same place at the same time, modifying the flow of traffic in facilities, and changing ventilation in buildings to introduce more fresh air. These solutions are not one-size-fits-all and have to be tailored to each worksite. It is important for employers to get employee input on these changes to ensure that work can still be done effectively.
  • Administrative controls: In addition to physical changes to the workplace, behavioral changes, also called administrative controls, are also needed to prevent infections. Examples include having employees complete temperature screening and symptom diaries before they enter workplaces, and making sure workers who are potentially ill understand that they should not come to work. Other administrative controls include requiring employees to wash their hands, making sure they’re adequately trained to do their jobs safely, implementing social distancing restrictions such as ensuring employees don’t gather in large groups, and staggering shift start and end times to avoid crowding at entrances and in break and locker rooms. Like employers, employees are under tremendous financial pressure to get back to work. Staying home if sick is a key responsibility that employees have. If even one sick person comes to work and doesn’t follow the safety protocols, it can break the defensive layers and undermine the entire infection control plan.
  • Use of personal protective equipment: The last line of defense for employees is wearing personal protective equipment, or PPE. For most workers, this will include some kind of mask or face covering. It’s important to remember that a facial covering doesn’t only protect the employee from infection by co-workers and customers; it also protects the co-workers and customers in case the employee is spreading the virus but asymptomatic. For some workplaces like barbershops that provide personal care services and involve direct contact with customers, it may be necessary to use other types of PPE, like gloves and face shields.

Each of the three layers of defense can be extremely effective in reducing infection risk. However, to reduce risk as far as possible, employers need to implement all three layers and employees need to ensure that they strictly follow all safety protocols. Collectively, this partnership will protect workers, customers and clients from infection.

5) Evaluate and tweak the plan: Even a well-crafted and thoroughly implemented plan may not work as well as it should. Therefore, it’s essential to continually evaluate the plan to confirm that it is giving the best results possible. While the plan should be in place before the business reopens, any problems with the plan will only become apparent after reopening. Infection control plans can break down in a number of ways, including lack of communication, inadequate understanding of workplace risks and poor or incomplete implementation of the plan. To avoid these breakdowns, employers should monitor the situation closely after reopening, and revisit and tweak aspects of the plan that don’t achieve the desired results.

For their part, employees who come back to work and do not clearly understand what is expected of them need to let their employer know. Workers should feel empowered to speak up and say, ‘I want to do this right, I want to be a good partner, and I need more information in order to do that.’ The challenge of workplace infection prevention and risk management for a virus that has never before existed in humans is new for everyone. The faster employers and employees accept that the workplace and work activities are going to change in unprecedented and perhaps uncomfortable ways, the faster we can all get back to work.

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