As the world enters the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic and businesses gradually start to reopen, it’s more important than ever that organizations pay attention to their environment, health, and safety programs. From the hierarchy of controls to hazard communication, from hand-washing to airflow, there are a variety of EHS factors in play when it comes to preventing and reducing the spread of COVID-19.
But more important than any specific process or technology are people. If you haven’t already, it’s time to consider forming a pandemic response team or reorienting your safety committee to focus on COVID-19 mitigation.
What Is a COVID-19 Response Team, and Why Is It Important?
Whatever form it takes, we’re talking about a group of people who have buy-in from the top level of your organization and are managing the nitty-gritty details of how to work safely—making sure workers are practicing social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, and following other guidelines and best practices. This group should be responsible for implementing pandemic control measures and communicating the changes to the rest of the organization. The group should meet regularly—daily in the first few weeks, and then perhaps weekly or twice-weekly as time goes on—and comprise people from various levels within the organization.
Such teams are nothing new. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration generally expects employers to have them, and OSHA State Plans actually require them.
Why are safety committees and response teams so important? Because they ensure organizations are doing everything they say they’re doing to prevent illnesses and injuries in the workplace. They’re pivotal to effectively overcoming any workplace hazard.
At this point, COVID-19 is hazard #1. It’s not the only danger out there—far from it—but it is perhaps the most present threat to employees’ health and safety. Employers need to work hard to address employees’ fears about it and prevent it from entering the workplace.
If your organization doesn’t take the threat seriously, you’ll risk not only exposing workers to a debilitating and life-threatening disease, but also regulatory action, legal claims, negative publicity, protests, boycotts, and more. Your EHS team can proactively minimize all that so workers can focus on keeping the business running smoothly.
Who Should Be on Your COVID-19 Response Team?
As mentioned above, your COVID-19 response team should encompass people from throughout your organization:
- EHS: It should probably go without saying that you need health and safety professionals on your health and safety team. These personnel will be largely responsible for designing the organization’s COVID-19 response, implementing controls, training employees, keeping records, and managing other elements and details of the program.
- Top executives: You need someone on the team who can make calls without first getting approval from others. For instance, if the team needs to go out and purchase a plastic partition for engineering control purposes, a team member should be able to say, “okay, here’s the credit card—go buy it.”
- HR: Many situations that will arise in the coming days, weeks, and months will involve human resources. Employees returning from furlough or rehired after layoffs will have questions that only HR can answer. Additionally, if there’s a suspected case of COVID-19 entering the workplace somehow, HR needs to be ready to manage the various related legal requirements: ADA, HIPAA, and so on.
- Legal: Pandemic response efforts must work within the confines of the law. If you have an attorney, legal team, or in-house counsel, one or more representatives from that group should be present on the team or available in a consulting role.
- Facility management: Facility managers play an important role in planning and executing a COVID-19 response plan. There will be numerous physical tasks and considerations in preventing the virus from entering your workplace—or spreading when it’s already present.
- Union members: Last but certainly not least, if you have a union in place, you should have one or more union representatives on the team. These individuals will help you manage communication, collecting input from employees and ensuring everyone is abiding by rules and best practices.
What Should Your COVID-19 Response Team Do?
Your COVID-19 response team will be engaging in myriad conversations, plans, and safety efforts. The team will need to take a sweeping look at your organization, from the 40,000-foot view of people and systems down to granular details of specific processes, machines, and individuals.
Here are just a few topics the team will need to discuss, along with potential questions, in the initial COVID-19 response planning stages:
- Work-from-home options: Is working from home feasible for employees? What technologies and policies do they need to succeed? What can be done remotely, and what (if anything) needs to be done in-person? How long will your WFH options be in place—indefinitely?
- Shift minimization: What can you do to limit the number of people working at your facilities at any given time? Can you alternate shifts by day (e.g. a “Team A” that comes in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; a “Team B” for Tuesdays and Thursdays), and/or stagger the starts and ends of shifts to avoid crowds entering and exiting the workplace?
- Strategies for controlling “hotspots”: How will you limit or restrict access to shared amenities and common areas, such as lunch rooms and break rooms?
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) policies and education: Do all of your employees have access to necessary PPE? Are they up-to-date on PPE use? What kind of masks/respirators and gloves should workers be wearing? Will your organization require PPE beyond federal, state, and municipal rules and guidelines? Whichever kind of equipment is required, how will your organization supply it?
- Sanitization schedules and assignments: Which employees will clean and disinfect the workplace? What items will they sanitize? When and how often? How will you make sure you’re using EPA-approved sanitizers and ensure sufficient contact time? (For more information about disinfecting and using cleaning chemicals safely, check out our article on the topic.)
- Strategies for alleviating worker anxiety and burnout: How will your organization make sure people remain as happy, productive, and engaged as possible at work? What mental health resources will you make available? How will employees be able to lodge complaints or ask for help when needed?
- Strategies for limiting human contact: How will you keep employees and customers physically distanced from each other? Do customers have to visit your facility in-person to do business?
- Active monitoring efforts: How will you continue monitoring employee health and safety? What systems, if any, will be in place for tracing employees’ movements and contacts? Can you test employees for infection and/or track common symptoms such as dry cough, fever, and shortness of breath?
- Procedures for a suspected infection: What will you do in the case of a suspected COVID-19 infection at your facilities? Which workers will need to quarantine at home? How will you determine when they’re healthy enough to return to work?
- Documentation: How will your organization keep track of all employee health and safety records related to COVID-19? How and where will safety committee/response team meeting minutes and decisions be documented? What will your policies look like?
- Updates to your hazard communication and employees’ right-to-know (RTK) program(s): What changes will need to be made in terms of how you inform employees of potential hazards in your facilities? Are all changes compliant with OSHA rules and standards? (Find out with our quiz.)
Many of these considerations involve the design and implementation of engineering controls and administrative controls. As we’ve explored on this blog, engineering and administrative controls are two levels on what’s called the hierarchy of controls—an approach to environmental safety that structures protective measures into 5 stages, in order of most to least effective. Engineering controls isolate people from the hazard. Administrative controls change the way people work. Engineering controls are more effective than administrative controls but both are important. Your team will need to determine the right mix of engineering (e.g. plastic partitions, floor tape, contactless payment systems) and administration (encouraging employees to stay at least 6 feet apart, ensuring computers and touchscreens get sanitized after every use, etc.).
For the full article and more resources, visit: https://www.kpa.io/blog/you-cant-reopen-your-business-without-a-covid-19-response-team