Getting back to business, as usual, might look a bit different post-pandemic. Whether you have employees who are subject to a quarantine or isolation order, employees who are reluctant to return to work, or you have an employee who tested positive or has related symptoms, you need to respond appropriately to keep your employee population safe while maintaining productivity. Having a plan in place can help you handle situations if or when they arise. The plan, however, should be flexible, as guidance continues to evolve. No one-size-fits-all plan will work for every organization. Response plans will need to be customized to fit particular situations. Many employers have gathered a select group of employees to act as COVID-19 response personnel which can include stakeholders from executive, HR, safety, facilities, and IT to name a few. These people will help make policies, procedures, guidance, and lead communication efforts.
PREPARING EMPLOYEES TO COME BACK WORK. You may have had some employees who were working from home, which is a great way to keep the disease out of the workplace. As time goes by, however, you may want to begin bringing employees back to the physical location. Choosing which employees are the first to return should be based on business operations and needs. Since you will likely want to incorporate some physical distance between employee workstations, you might want to make adjustments to the workplace layout to accommodate the distance, or put up effective barriers between employees who are unable to distance. The determination on which employees you do bring back should not be based on protected classes such as age, nationality, race, disability, or sex. Before employees come back, ensure the air quality is good. Routine HVAC maintenance is recommended. Although it is never the first line of prevention, consider general ventilation adjustments in your workplace, such as increasing ventilation and increasing the amount of outdoor air used by the system.
RESPONDING TO AN INCIDENT. No matter how you learn that an employee has or may have the condition, you will need to respond appropriately. The CDC and other public health agencies indicate that, if you learn of an employee’s exposure, you should not let that employee enter the workplace. If the employee is already onsite, you are to separate the employee and send him or her home. Critical infrastructure workers may be allowed to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community. Employees who have had exposure but remain asymptomatic should adhere to the following practices prior to and during their work shift:
- Pre-screen: You should measure the employee’s temperature and assess symptoms prior to them starting work. Ideally, temperature checks should happen before the individual enters the facility.
- Regular monitoring: As long as the employee doesn’t have a temperature or symptoms they should self-monitor under the supervision of your occupational health program.
- Wear a mask: The employee should wear a face mask at all times while in the workplace for 14 days after the last exposure. You may issue facemasks or approve employees’ supplied cloth face coverings in the event of shortages.
- Social distance: The employee should maintain six feet and practice social distancing as work duties permit in the workplace.
- Disinfect and clean workspaces: Clean and disinfect all areas such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, and shared electronic equipment routinely.
If an employee becomes sick during the day, he or she should be sent home immediately. Surfaces in their workspace should be cleaned and disinfected. Information on persons who had contact with the ill employee during the time the employee had symptoms and two days prior to symptoms should be compiled. Others at the facility with close contact within six feet of the employee during this time would be considered exposed. Employees who have symptoms (i.e., fever, cough, or shortness of breath) should notify their supervisor and stay home. They should also follow the CDC-recommended steps. Employees should not return to work until the criteria to discontinue home isolation are met, in consultation with health care providers and state and local health departments. If an employee reports that a coworker looks ill, you should investigate and determine your next steps.
If the coworker truly appears to have symptoms or reports symptoms, the coworker should be isolated and sent home. Contact tracing could follow. Employees who are well but who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor and follow CDC recommended precautions. You might also want to work with your local public health authorities should an employee contract the disease. Employers have been taking extraordinary steps to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to help prevent the spread of the disease, protect their employees, and continue business operations. Whatever role you currently play in these efforts, continually evaluate actions your company is taking to better prepare for a post-event analysis.
At some point, your company will likely hold a meeting to evaluate what was done well, what could have been done differently, and what plans need to be created to prepare for the next event. This analysis should include individuals with a strong understanding of emergency response actions, which likely includes you. An evaluation should also include individuals who were not actual decision-makers during the event; although that may not be possible, individuals can help evaluate the roles played by others. This may mean that others will be examining the actions you took, so be prepared for constructive feedback. Analyzing your role as an ongoing process will help you prepare. In addition, you’ll likely provide feedback to others, and should plan to do so diplomatically.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER. The answers to any post-emergency evaluation will differ with each company, but some of the questions that might be asked will likely include the following:
- Was the scope of the situation understood from the beginning, or did it continually develop? As new information became available, how quickly did the company respond?
- Was key information available? What steps were taken to evaluate the accuracy of available information? Was there a process for implementing decisions based on incomplete data?
- Were any delays caused by getting key decision-makers together? What actions were authorized to be taken by management below the executive level?
- How quickly were decisions communicated down all levels and throughout all locations? Was all key contact information available and current?
- Did the company look to existing plans or policies? Were they current and available to key individuals? Were revisions adopted and implemented as needed? What changes may be needed for greater flexibility (such as adding multiple response options based on severity)?
- Were available resources devoted in the most efficient manner? Was anything critical overlooked? What resources are needed (or can be gathered) to prepare for the next event?
- What alternative suppliers were considered, and what contingency plans were in place if the alternatives also became unavailable?
- Did the company seem to be taking a reactive approach, or was a long-term goal developed?
You cannot know the nature or severity of the next emergency event, but you can be certain that another event will occur. Planning out what the company is prepared to do, and what resources are available and can be devoted, will help the organization get through the situation.