9 Ways to Keep Employees Safe in the Office
Safety in the office has always been an important part of the workplace, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a safe work environment is more imperative than ever. After months of office closures in a struggling labor market, many people are eager to get back into a routine with some sense of normalcy.
Even though many workplaces and their employees want to return to in-person work as quickly as possible, it is necessary for employers to have a safe return-to-work plan before enacting the transition from online to in-person work.
Creating a Safe Work Environment
Importance of a Safe Office
Safe office space is important for both employers and employees for many reasons. First, safety in the office lowers the chances of injury and illness, which protects the health of employees and saves employers from the extra costs that come with injury or illness in the workplace. Specifically, studies estimate employers pay almost $1 billion weekly for direct workers’ compensation costs, such as compensation payments, medical expenses and legal service fees.
Relating to personal safety from injury and illness on the job, safe work environments can reduce employee absenteeism because workers will take fewer sick days and will feel comfortable to come to their job without fear of uncleanly workspaces. In turn, this can boost productivity and employee relationships.
Ways to Keep Employees Safe in the Office
The idea of personal safety changed drastically during the coronavirus pandemic, altering the actions companies must take to keep employees safe and workplaces clean.
Different career fields have different offices and equipment to work with, making each office unique in the specific ways they can keep their employees safe. Despite these differences, there are a variety of things all employers can do to increase safety and cleanliness.
Here are nine ways to keep employees safe in the office during the time of COVID-19:
1. Know the Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs.
All employers should familiarize themselves with the Guidelines for Safety and Health Programs released by the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The OSHA specified these instructions to help businesses prevent workplace injuries and illnesses, improve compliance with laws, reduce costs, engage workers, enhance company goals and increase business operations.
Companies should also distribute this information to employees by providing workers with lists of resources for emergency COVID situations and alerting workers of any updates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and OSHA. Keeping an open line of communication between employers and employees creates a sense of trust and establishes a relationship that will encourage workers to reach out with any questions or concerns regarding workplace safety during COVID-19.
2. Identify risks through a hazard assessment.
The first step to coming up with an employee safety plan is to conduct a Job Hazard Analysis (JHA). The purpose of the JHA tool is to complete an examination of all office tasks and identify any hazards associated with the office. While companies may have done this prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the new circumstances caused by the pandemic require businesses to reevaluate their safety plans. This may include checking for things that were not previously a concern.
Before allowing employees to return to the office, employers should assess the hazards that often result from a building being unoccupied for a prolonged period, including rodent or pest infestation, mold, problems with the water system or stagnant water and electrical or wiring dangers.
3. Determine if employees can safely work in-person or if the company should rely on working from home.
Before businesses can prepare an office for in-person work, they need to determine if working in an office is viable or if it is too much of a risk. Depending on the type of company and the office space available, there may be no feasible way to make offices safe for all employees.
If offices do not have enough space for all employees to safely social distance from one another, companies should set a work from home (WFH) schedule or a hybrid WFH schedule that allows different employees to attend in-person work on varying days. In fact, the Pulse of the American Worker Survey reports that 68% of workers believe that hybrid work is the perfect model, and 87% of people want at least one day of at-home work per week.
4. Prepare office spaces before having employees return to in-person work.
The simplest way to optimize offices for safety is to modify the furniture and floor layout for social distancing. The CDC recommends keepings a six-foot distance between people, so employers should organize furniture and work spaces in a way that allows this space between workers. Another consideration is for offices to remove sitting areas and non-essential amenities that encourage high-traffic areas.
Before returning to the office, it is also important for employers to check its air filtration and ventilation systems. Increased air filtration encourages cleaner air and improving ventilation systems increases airflow in occupied spaces, lessening the risk of the spread of the coronavirus. Also, those in offices with windows should consider natural ventilation by opening windows to dilute indoor air with outdoor air.
Using ultraviolet-C (UVC) lights, also called germicidal lights, can help eliminate germs and bacteria in the air and water and on solid surfaces. Specifically, one study found that nine minutes of UVC light exposure could inactivate the coronavirus. Another study found that a specific UVC lamp reduced 99.7% of live coronavirus in 30 seconds.
Another more simplistic way to encourage office safety is through the use of labels and signs. Hanging up signs can remind employees to practice safety measures, such as proper handwashing techniques and wearing a mask. Floor markers and taped lines can also suggest proper social distancing and define areas off-limits to employees.
If employees have already returned to the office, employers should utilize the time after work or on weekends to prep office spaces for the safety procedures necessary for a healthy work environment. These simple steps can help employers keep their workers safe, healthy and working efficiently.
5. Establish operating procedures for day-to-day operations.
COVID-19 has changed many aspects of daily life, from the way people communicate to the precautions they take to avoid germs. These changes transfer into the workforce as well. To keep employees from injury or illness, companies need to establish everyday operating procedures.
While companies should have previously practiced sanitization, many places did not strictly enforce proper cleanliness tactics. Because of how contagious and serious the coronavirus is, it is vital for employers to clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces and encourage workers to do the same. Businesses should supply office workers with sanitizer and other cleaning products and promote proper use of cleaning supplies to prevent the spread of disease.
Workplaces also should provide health checks for employees, including taking the temperatures of all employees upon entrance and random screening testing for possible asymptomatic individuals. If an employee has a fever or exhibits any signs of having coronavirus, employers should have a procedure to deal with this that explains sick time and compensation.
6. Develop an infectious disease outbreak emergency plan.
Having a plan in order in case of emergency outbreak is key in preventing or reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Because COVID-19 is highly contagious and spreads through close contact or respiratory droplets from an infected individual, people who work closely together can easily spread coronavirus.
Creating and following a plan for the possible outbreak of infectious diseases in the office can help prevent interruptions in the flow of the workplace, reducing absences, keeping business plans on track and allowing outside workers to continue their part in the company. According to the OSHA, company emergency plans should consider how workers may become exposed to COVID-19, non-occupational risks, their individual risk factors and controls necessary to address these risks. This can include encouraging employees to practice proper hygiene techniques, discouraging the use of shared products and supplying cleaning and sanitization products.
Recommendations on how to keep the workflow as consistent and normal as possible during a coronavirus outbreak include cross-training workers to perform the duties of different jobs, creating a schedule with a hybrid work model or staggered shifts and restricting the number of outside personnel in an area.
7. Alter any procedures that do not work.
Ideas can sometimes be better in theory than in practice. Businesses should not be afraid to accept feedback from employees. Also, they should keep up-to-date with new information from the CDC and OSHA to update policies depending on the federal guidelines and regional outbreaks.
8. Encourage health prioritization.
Prioritizing health and clean workplaces are important parts of creating a safe work environment during a pandemic. While it may seem like basic knowledge and etiquette to keep clean and prevent the spread of germs, it is increasingly important for workers to diligently practice simple things to prevent illness and the spread of disease.
Some examples of easy things employers should remind their employees about are proper handwashing techniques, wiping off anything they touch and sanitizing commonly used objects.
Another key part of minimizing the spread of COVID and other diseases is encouraging employees to stay home when they are sick. While it may not be optimal to have employees out sick for what seem to be minor symptoms, this will become more of a hassle for employers if someone comes into work while ill with the coronavirus, infecting coworkers. Because the disease can spread so quickly, it is better to have all ill workers stay home until they can prove that they do not have the coronavirus by providing a negative test.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is another way to promote a healthy workplace. PPE includes face masks or respirators, shields, goggles, gloves and shoe covers. Depending on the type of job and the amount of interaction with others, workers may need varying levels of protection based on their job requirements. As part of their JHA, employers should define who needs to wear what PPE and provide that equipment for individuals.
9. Enforce the rules from the beginning.
If employers strictly enforce all the rules created for their protection plan against the spread of COVID-19 right away, workers are more likely to follow these guidelines. Soon after setting the rules in place, practicing these prevention strategies will be like second nature for employees, making the workplace a safe space.
Educating employees about the importance of COVID-19 prevention strategies is one major way to ensure that a company can continue to perform effectively and safely. Teaching employees the importance of compliance with newly instated rules may be difficult, but reinforcing that companies can only stay open and operating by complying with these new guidelines and laws can help encourage employees to be more open-minded with the changes.
Reiterate how protecting against the spread of disease is key in keeping businesses open and allowing workers to continue with their jobs. If employers emphasize these points, workers may better understand the severity of the pandemic and its effects on the economy.
Importance of Change
Informing employees of the different ways to spread the coronavirus can help individuals to use sanitary practices in their everyday lives, translating to a safer workplace and safer outside environments. While health and safety have always been priorities, the spread of COVID-19 has placed a new significance on sanitization and cleanliness.
The workplace, the economy and even the world has changed greatly as an effect of the pandemic. Embracing these changes is a necessary part of moving on from such a shock. Therefore, people must continue practicing these everyday changes in the days moving forward so they can create an environment better and safer than in pre-pandemic times.