Returning Workers to Buildings Should be Carefully Considered, Observers Say

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL ( – Bringing employees back to work should be carefully planned in order to keep them safe and protect the company from unwarranted liability. That’s the advice of the head of an injury management and occupational health programs organization.

“Our ever-changing operating environment will present new challenges. The political, legal, social and the economic circumstances we were used to before COVID-19 have all changed and will continue changing for some time to come,” said Mark Robinson, president and CEO of Axiom Medical. “I think the future belongs to those who can achieve what I call a thrival mindset; a combination of the force of will and depth of commitment necessary to survive disruptive change, and the determined innovation and risk appetite necessary to go beyond survival and actually thrive in the changed environment.”

During a webinar on the future of business operations post-COVID-19, he outlined what he called the three phases of returning to somewhat more normal operations.

Phase I

As some states begin to relax some of their restrictions and consider reopening businesses in the near term, the threat of exposure to the virus remains very high.

“It’s critical to apply rigorous social distancing,” Robinson said. “Restrict occupancy to enable social distancing. If you had 400 people in a cube farm, now have only 200 people.”

Varying arrival and departure times of workers will help prevent people congregating in lobbies or outside the front door. Closing common areas, such as break rooms can also discourage workers from clustering.

In the short term, first phase of returning workers, face coverings are advisable to prevent the spread of the virus.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued general public guidance that everyone wear masks in public. Excepting any safety issues within certain operations, I’d advocate for that practice to be adopted into the workforce,” said Scott Cherry, MD, Axiom’s chief Medical Officer. The “current climate from the CDC is you can use homemade masks … If you can’t find the proper commercial product it’d be OK to use a face covering from the home in lieu of nothing.”

But employers should expect that some employees will resist the idea of wearing face masks and may say they have a medical reason.

“I think we have an obligation to reasonably accommodate a worker where we can if they propose that a physical condition prevents them from complying with the requirements,” Robinson said. “Is it reasonable a person should ask to not wear a face mask and maybe infect workers? My answer is no. My accommodation would be they work from home in the interim until a mask no longer required. If that’s not a possibility, then you have the option to terminate that employee.”

Organizations are also advised to do frequent, and deep cleanings of offices, especially ‘touch’ areas, such as desktops. Changing air conditioning filters more frequently may help reduce contamination as there is evidence that concentrated infection accumulates and survives on them.

Daily prework health screenings, such as temperature checks are suggested so ill workers are not admitted into the worksite. If a worker does become ill with the virus, contact tracing may be necessary to determine other workers who may have had close contact with the employee.

Phases II and III

While fewer new cases may be seen at some point, there will still likely be outbreaks in certain areas. Employers can adjust their policies but still take measures to prevent the spread.

“You may be able to relax some operational changes, maybe dropping masks, decreasing cleaning frequency, maybe looking at social distancing changes,” Robinson said. “But you still have to be aware the disease is an ongoing threat and not be ready to say we have it contained and no longer have to take excessive precautions.”

A ‘controlled threat’ is the third and final phase of returning organizations to something more akin to what they were prior to the virus. “In the longer term, many of these requirements may not be needed but I’d be very surprised if we ever saw a complete relaxation,” Robinson said. “The fact that we’re all now aware of the risk means as people responsible for running a business, we have to take prudent actions to prevent those from occurring in our workplace, just like we do for any safety hazard.”

Another issue to consider during Phase III is the severity of other seasonal illnesses. A bad cold or flu season, along with the coronavirus would likely mean more absences and more risk of spreading all of these diseases.

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