Cases of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) have surpassed 2 million worldwide and the globe is facing a pandemic. Right now, employers play an essential role in planning for COVID-19 to reduce the impact the outbreak may have on businesses, workers, customers, and the public as a whole.
Based on traditional infection prevention and industrial hygiene practices, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19—recommendations and applicable standards to assist employers in creating a safe and healthful workplace. OSHA warns workplaces in an area dealing with an active outbreak may experience increased absenteeism, major changes in patterns of commerce, and interrupted supply chains/delayed deliveries.
Employers should develop an infectious disease and response plan, referring to guidance from state and local health agencies for flexible sick leave, supportive policies, and procedures for identifying and isolating sick people. It is also the employer’s responsibility to take steps to reduce worker’s risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.
Every single workplace will to need to prepare to implement basic prevention measures if it has not done so yet. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person, and transmission is possible before an individual start to show symptoms, according to public health officials, so employers need to control the hazard of exposure to the disease. Obviously there is no way to completely eliminate the hazard of exposure to COVID-19 so employers will likely need to implement a combination of control measures to adequately protect workers.
Engineering controls, the most effective controls employers can utilize for the coronavirus, isolate employees from work-related hazards without relying on worker behavior. One way to protect those working on an assembly line or close together by installing physical barriers, like clear plastic sneeze guards, in between stations.
In workplaces where it’s appropriate, OSHA recommends installing high-efficiency air filters, increasing ventilation rates in the work environment, and if necessary—installing a drive-through windows for customer services. Facilities may consider creating temporary designated areas, like restrooms, for logistics providers and truck drivers to prevent cross contamination.
Administrative Controls & Safe Work Practices
Encourage social distancing and healthy hygiene! The first step is to minimize contact as much as possible. One way to do this is by discontinuing any in-person meetings—one packaging plant in California has actually moved to outdoor meetings. For the time being, limit the number of visitors to your facility and be sure to communicate these changes to customers and vendors. You can protect your workplace by requiring temperature screenings for all employees, contractors, and logistics providers and implementing rules for truck drivers, especially those coming from areas known to have a high rate of infection.
If possible, try to establish policies and practices, such as staggered shifts, to increase the physical distance between employees. You can reduce the number of people working in the facility at one time by scheduling extra shifts or alternating days, allowing workers to maintain a healthy distance. Another option is to schedule gaps between shifts to reduce the likelihood of cross-shift transmission. Make sure you are providing employees with up-to-date guidance on social distancing practices and help them visualize a 6-foot distance with floor markings. Use floor marking tape to demarcate individual work cells and ensure operators know where to stand with footprint floor stickers.
Now more than ever, it is absolutely paramount to keep up regular housekeeping practices and establish even more stringent cleaning and sanitizing routines. Whenever possible, discourage workers from sharing tools and equipment, but ensure protocols are in place to ensure forklifts, machinery, equipment, tools, door handles, and other commonly touched surfaces are wiped down thoroughly and regularly.
Finally, one of the simplest ways you can protect employees is by creating a work environment that promotes personal hygiene. OSHA recommends providing tissues, no-touch trash cans, and either hand soap or alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol. Employers should provide workers with a place to wash their hands, consider installing temporary hand washing stations or adding hand sanitizer dispensers around the facility, and post hand washing signs in restrooms to encourage good hand hygiene. In addition to requiring regular hand washing, you should also be encouraging respiratory etiquette with reminders to cover coughs and sneezes, preferably into a tissue that is then disposed of.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Your facility may need to utilize PPE—gloves, goggles, face shields, face masks, and respiratory protection—to prevent certain exposures, but it cannot take the place of other prevention or control strategies. Employees working continuous shifts, outgoing/incoming shifts, or with outside personnel (delivery drivers) should ideally be provided with gloves and face masks or shields. Employers are still required to provide PPE at no cost to workers and comply with OSHA regulations for compliance.
Right now, businesses have an essential role in protecting their communities by preventatively preparing their workplace. If you have not yet implemented basic prevention measures, you will need to prepare to do so. These measures include engineering controls, administrative controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment. There is not a way to completely eliminate the hazard of exposure to COVID-19, but there are steps you can take to ensure workers in your warehouse remain safe from the spread of the coronavirus.