As the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic, it is critical that safety professionals implement a plan to deal with the virus in the workplace.This article provides a general overview of the recommendations set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as how organizations can track and manage employee exposures to COVID-19.
Identify Workers Who May Have Exposure Risks
Employees in some job sectors may be at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. By understanding what groups of employees are at greatest risk of infection, you can take steps to reduce the risk of virus transmission at work.
Workers with increased exposure risks include those involved in:
- Healthcare (first responders, healthcare providers, clinical laboratory personnel, and support staff)
- Airline operations
- Waste management
- Coroners and funeral directors
- Travelers to areas where the virus is spreading
EHS managers should also consider whether or not their workers may encounter someone infected with COVID-19 while carrying out their job tasks. Safety professionals should determine if employees could be exposed to work areas or materials (such as laboratory samples or waste) that have been contaminated, since the transmissibility of the virus from contaminated surfaces and objects is not fully understood at this time.
The (CDC) provides information about conducting risk assessments for employee exposures to COVID-19 on its website. We’ve also put together a detailed article on how to assess health and safety risks using a risk matrix, which you might want to check out.
Educate Employees on How the Virus is Transmitted
We still have a lot to learn about the transmissibility of the Coronavirus as the outbreak investigation continues in the United States and across the globe.
What we do know is that infected people can spread COVID-19 through their respiratory secretions, especially when they cough or sneeze, similar to how influenza and the common cold is spread. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
According to the CDC, the virus spreading from person-to-person is most likely among close contacts. The CDC defines “close contact” as being about 6 feet away from an infected person.
Close contact typically doesn’t include short interactions, such as walking past a person. However, close contact does include situations in which an individual is within the room or care area of an infected person for a prolonged period, without wearing recommended personal protective equipment (PPE).
Communicate best practices
The outbreak of COVID-19 is a constantly changing situation, but there are resource pages and interim guidance available on both the OSHA and CDC websites that are continuously being updated as new information rises to best combat the spread of COVID-19.
Currently, the CDC’s specific recommendations include:
- Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being in public locations.
- If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
- Avoid touching your face, particularly your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick, as much as possible given workers’ job functions.
In addition, as we mentioned above, the WHO is still determining the extent to which COVID-19 can survive on surfaces. However, as a precaution until more is known, the CDC advises employers to clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided a list of disinfecting products that the agency has approved for use against SARS-CoV-2, or the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
When it comes to housekeeping and disinfection, automating inspections and audits using safety management software can help EHS managers and leadership to easily confirm whether these crucial sanitation practices are occurring as needed, and whether these practices are effective in reducing infection.
Know what equipment and tools are useful in preventing infections
Make sure your workforce understands what pieces of protective equipment are appropriate to use, and when. For example, if you are NOT sick, then the CDC advises that you do not wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who IS sick (and they are not able to wear a facemask). In the coming days, facemasks may be in short supply and they should be saved for caregivers.
On that note, it’s crucial that healthcare workers rely on PPE to protect themselves and prevent the spread of infection among their patients and clients.
OSHA recommends that all healthcare workers wear:
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-certified, disposable N95 (or better) respirators
- Eye/face protection (goggles/face shield)
While taking off a potentially contaminated respirator, healthcare employees should not touch the outside of the respirator without wearing gloves.
Regardless of your industry, after removing PPE, workers should always wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. EHS managers should ensure that workers remove PPE in areas in which hand hygiene facilities are readily available. It’s also crucial to designate “clean areas” (places where PPE is put on) from “dirty areas” (places where PPE is taken off).
Depending upon the frequency and comfort with which employees typically use PPE in their usual job functions, providing re-training or refresher training on the proper use and fit of PPE may be needed for some job types.
A training management software system can be utilized to deliver and track training to ensure groups of workers have the knowledge they need to use their PPE appropriately and effectively. While on the subject of training, many training content developers like our parent company, Vector Solutions, have developed complementary courses on the prevention of COVID-19. We hope that you’ll share this course with your employees, friends, and family members to keep them safe and healthy.
Document and investigate suspected exposures
Should a member of your organization be exposed to COVID-19 or someone who may have contracted COVID-19, it is highly critical to track and monitor the exposure and take action as needed.
Organizations should record and track incidents in which an employee has been exposed to Coronavirus while on the job as they would any other workplace injury or near miss. Exposures should be properly documented and investigated to determine who else may be at risk.
Actions taken to quarantine or prevent further exposure should also be documented to provide as a reference if your organization has multiple locations.
In addition, OSHA has provided guidance that while employers are exempt from recording incidents of employees contracting common colds and the flu in the workplace, any workplace contractions of Coronavirus MUST be recorded on the applicable recordkeeping logs IF it meets the following criteria:
- The case is a confirmed case of COVID-19 (see the CDC's information on persons under investigation and presumptive positive and laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19).
- The case is work-related. If you're not clear on how OSHA defines what incidents should be considered work-related, we've got a helpful article on the subject.
- The case involves one or more of the general recording criteria, such as a death, loss of consciousness, missed days away from work, restricted work activity or a job transfer, and medical treatment beyond first aid.
For more information on OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements for COVID-19, see our guide.
Depending upon the size of your workforce, it might be best to start investigating web-based safety management systems (SMS) to easily report on incidents of employees exposed to COVID-19. Safety management software can save EHS managers valuable resources, reduce the amount of time spent recording and tracking exposures, and ensure you’re in compliance with OSHA recordkeeping standards.
Keep upper management informed
To decide what courses of action are best for the health and safety of their employees, upper management will frequently need to rely on the information gathered by the EHS department.
Through use of safety software, leadership can receive scheduled reports and dashboards to keep them up to date with the latest information on your organization’s health and safety efforts in managing COVID-19.
EHS software can also deliver instant notifications to leadership, safety professionals, and key team members when new exposures are reported, allowing investigations and next steps for quarantine and treatment to be carried out faster.
With so many things to consider and implement to lessen COVID-19’s impact on your business, the project can seem daunting. That’s why it’s important to continually keep up to date with the latest updates from public health agencies and arm yourself with the tools and equipment that you'll need to protect your workforce.