Transitioning Back to Work Safely During COVID-19

May 19, 2020 • Previsor

This post is related to COVID-19. For more, visit Missouri Employers Mutual’s COVID-19 Resource Center for Employers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively changed the way that many businesses are run. Employees who are able to work remotely have relocated to their homes. Others have had to close temporarily. Alternating shifts and schedules has helped some companies keep their doors open.

But across the country, businesses are beginning to reopen. People will return to work. How can employers prepare their employees – and their workplaces – for a new future of work?

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we’re sitting down with a safety expert. Mark Woodward is a Safety and Risk Trainer at Missouri Employers Mutual. He started at MEM in 2007. Woodward has been providing safety training and services for the past 12 years. His role is to help people prevent, and prepare, for the unexpected through safety training and education.

First, we’ll talk about the main points employers need to consider before returning to the workplace. Then, we’ll share how to make a transition plan for your business. Finally, we’ll discuss how employers should prepare for a new future of work during COVID-19.

Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

Major factors: returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 has changed the way businesses are run in every industry. In order to keep customers safe, some companies closed. Essential businesses, like healthcare and food services, stayed open. They have adapted in order to keep meeting the needs of their customers. But now that many communities are starting to reopen, there is one question on every employer’s mind: When can I get back to work?

As a safety specialist, Mark pays close attention to information sources at all levels. He shared four things that every employer should consider before getting back to work.

  1. Directions from national health and labor authorities. Every employer should closely monitor trusted information sources for the latest public safety recommendations. Woodward recommends checking guidelines provided by the CDC and OSHA before returning to work.
  2. The impact of COVID-19 in your local community. Has your local area been affected by COVID-19? Check local public health authorities for the latest information on your town or city.
  3. Essential vs. non-essential employees. Which employees to you need to be on-site in order to keep your business running? Only those who are essential to keep your business open and running should be considered to return to the workplace first.
  4. Business that requires face-to-face interactions. Community transmission of the virus can be an issue. Do your employees work directly with customers, like making home visits or direct deliveries? Safety rules will need to be put in place if these employees return to work.

Professionals work in an office wearing masks and social distancing

Back to work: making your transition plan

Once you’ve decided to go back to work, you will need a transition plan. This plan will help you keep employees safe. OSHA offers guidance on preparing your workplace – and your workers – for returning to work during COVID-19.

Employers may need to make changes to standard processes. These changes will look different for every business. If employees work close to one another, then they may need to be moved apart to observe social distancing. Woodward says that some businesses may not be able to return to the same productivity levels they had before. However, the most important thing is to keep people safe.

Many companies are discovering they will need new safety rules for employees. Washing your hands with soap and warm water is an important way to prevent the spread of the virus. But many employers have never required their employees to wash their hands.

“It makes me wonder what we were doing before COVID when it comes to hand-washing,” Woodward wondered. Many shops and businesses he visited before the pandemic had only cold water. “I think we all should have been obsessed with hand-washing before this.”

Creating clean and safe workplaces

Business owners will need to be flexible when it comes to making their workplaces safer. Woodward recommends you assess your facilities before employees return. Check the following items at your workplace to ensure they are working and/or stocked:

  • Soap and warm water. Both items are needed for effective hand-washing. Employees should have access to both.
  • Hand sanitizer. If employees don’t have immediate access to a sink, then hand sanitizer is an alternative they should have access to.
  • Cleaning supplies. Keeping shared surfaces clean is key to prevent the spread of the virus. This includes shared break areas and devices like printers and telephones.
  • Office supplies. Employees are used to sharing office supplies, like headsets or ink pens. Order extra supplies to minimize the number of people touching the same items.

Woodward has seen some companies adjust well to these changes. He gave the example of a company that conducts in-person training for employees. Due to COVID-19, they have changed the way that they work. Before the pandemic, they held seminars at different workplaces. This usually meant a full day visiting other offices – plus travel time and expenses. Now, their training is being held using video conferencing tools.

While the company plans to go back to in-person training when they can, they are enjoying new benefits from the changes. Employees can receive training in shorter amounts. Instead of a full day, they can take training two hours at a time. They plan to continue offering the virtual training. It has created a new revenue stream for them.

Warehouse employee takes stock wearing a hygienic mask

Supporting your employees

Employers and managers can be a source of vital support to employees who are working from home. Woodward said this support should continue when employees return to work. For him, COVID-19 is not worth losing valuable talent and members of your employee community. Many employees are taking on new roles. This includes balancing childcare, work, and their families at the same time. If employees don’t have any flexibility, then they may be forced to leave their job. “We don’t want to lose an employee over this. We’ve got to be flexible.”

Being flexible and staying safe

Employers will need to talk with their employees often. “I think communicating facts is important,” Woodward added. Some people are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Employers should be willing to make adjustments to help protect them. Have conversations about the symptoms of COVID-19 and what employees should do if they think they have been exposed. Identify who those employees should report to. The CDC offers a free symptom checker.

If you need to put new safety rules in place, like social distancing and hand-washing, share those with employees. In some industries, these measures are an expectation. But in others, they may be new. “Hand-washing in a manufacturing environment, where we make mufflers or equipment – I don’t think it’s ever been a safety rule,” Woodward explained. “We’re not dealing with patients, other human beings, or with food, but maybe now hand-washing becomes a safety rule, where it is part of our daily safety protocol.”

These conversations are crucial to keep people safe and companies successful. “We want to keep the business open. Because without the business open, no one is going to make a paycheck, and we’ll all be in trouble.” Employees are an essential part of every workplace. “Show through actions to the employees that you’re working for them,” Woodward said, “and trying to care for their safety.”

Planning for the future

Disaster and emergency planning should be a priority for every business. For Woodward, pandemic planning is a part of that. Employers should always be thinking about the future. Financial standing and rainy day funds are one aspect.

Employees are another critical part of keeping businesses going. “We’re sending people home for four months, three months,” Woodward said. How can you keep employees connected if they can’t come in to the workplace? Do employees have the equipment they need if they can work from home? How can you support them if they aren’t able to come in to work?

“Many of the things we’re discussing now should have always been done,” Woodward admits. But he also considers now an opportunity for employers to develop and grow. It may be hard to talk about some of these situations. Employers should be willing to listen to their employees, make financial investments, and communicate their expectations. Woodward knows that extra preparation and planning now will pay off in the future.

For more, check out our tips to protect your business data while working remotely and other COVID-19 resources for employers.

May 19, 2020
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