By Dr. Adrian Hyzler, Chief Medical Officer, Healix International.
Healix International works with multi-national corporations, NGOs and governments around the world to provide medical, security and travel assistance and help fulfil duty of care obligations.
The world has been on varying levels of pandemic lockdown for months now and one major question lingers for nations, communities and businesses alike - when should we re-open, and what do we need to do to be prepared?
Denmark has led the charge in the EU as the first country to begin the cautious process of re-opening, starting with daycare centres and primary schools on 14 April. “This will probably be a bit like walking the tightrope,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at a recent press conference." If we stand still along the way we could fall and if we go too fast it can go wrong. Therefore, we must take one cautious step at a time.”
The tightrope analogy applies for businesses as well. Everyone is eager to return to work and get the world economy moving again, but that desire must be balanced with an organisation’s duty of care to protect the health and wellbeing of employees and clients - something that is a greater focus now than ever before.
So, what can your organisation do to move forward? The most important thing, of course, is to adhere to the guidance of local and federal governments. Once your region begins the ‘re-opening’ process, there are several things you can do to mitigate risk and protect your employees.
Point of care (POC) antigen testing before entering the workplace
Testing is one of the key elements that will get the world back to work. While rapid point of care testing currently has limited availability in laboratory settings, wider distribution is likely in the near-term. If employers can reassure workers by performing a point of care swab test that will tell within minutes whether or not they are carrying the virus in their nasal passages, then all workers can be reassured that the working environment is a safe place to be. There are plenty of rapid diagnostic ‘antibody’ tests to determine who among their employees has been previously exposed to the virus and subsequently developed antibodies. None of these has proven sufficiently accurate to adopt on a widescale basis but when they are, it will make for much more informed planning and decision making. The ability to put those with antibodies on the forefront of public facing and interpersonal interaction will work to protect both employees and those in the surrounding community.
Just as many countries are re-opening with a phased approach, so too should organisations. It would be irresponsible to pack 50 people into an open concept workspace, because that provides an environment for any virus to spread rapidly. A schedule should be set, depending on the roles within the business, for a maximum number of employees to be present at a given time with adequate physical distancing enforced wherever possible. This may well lend itself to a rotating work-from-home arrangement. It is important to remember the impact of school and daycare closures as well. Employees with children and single parents may require an additional level of flexibility.
There must also be consideration given to those of your employees who are considered to be at a greater risk for infection: people over the age of 60, anyone who is immunocompromised or has a pre-existing condition. Where possible, these individuals should be instructed to work from home for the foreseeable future, particularly if a healthcare provider has instructed them to do so.
Business travel policy updates
Business travel will resume in the coming months, and it will start with ‘business critical’ travellers. Organisations will need to outline new policies that include approval by senior leadership for all travel in the near term. It is incredibly important that every decision made around this aspect of ‘re-opening’ is supported by vetted, reliable and up-to-date information. Risk managers will need to provide all travellers with pre-travel advisories, destination information, and the mobile technology and tracking necessary to keep travellers safe and stakeholders informed. Travellers will also need access to 24/7 medical and security assistance in the event that they fall ill or experience a disruption such as the unexpected border closures that were seen earlier this year.
Consideration should also be given to policies around travellers’ return to the workplace. Where possible, it would be prudent to implement a 14-day work from home period following travel in order to minimise the risk of exposure for co-workers in the event that the traveller falls ill.
Social distancing and behaviour changes
Wherever possible, people in the workplace should maintain a minimum 6-foot distance from one another. In the instances where that requirement is not reasonable, there should be other protocols put in place. Simply put, handshakes are a thing of the past. There should be no touching, no hugging, no sharing of food or drinks.
Face covering protocols
In adherence with health organisation and government recommendations, the use of face coverings in public places where social distancing is difficult, could play a part in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Employees may therefore wear face coverings on their journey into work, as well as some employees wearing face masks due to the nature of their work. Clear guidelines must therefore be outlined by the organisation on who is expected to wear a mask and at what times, as well as when and where they should be put on and removed. Mask stations with proper receptacles should be set up for mask donning and removal/disposal.
Public transport guidelines
If your organisation has employees that use public transport to get to and from work, it is important to equip them with information and guidelines on how to do so safely, such as wearing face coverings and gloves, carrying disinfectant wipes and alcohol-based hand-sanitiser at all times. Employees should dispose of gloves, wash their hands and wipe down their phones and headphones immediately upon arrival at their destination.
Workplace sanitation and hygiene
The cleanliness of a workplace (and the people in it) has never in history been as paramount as it is now. Whatever cleaning schedule and rules existed before this pandemic are simply not going to be enough in the ‘new normal’. Plan to speak to your facilities manager and cleaning teams at length about increased frequency of cleanings, as well as a checklist of thorough disinfecting to include all high-touch surfaces, workstations, eating areas and restrooms.
Disinfectant wipes should sit on every surface so that they can be wiped frequently. Where possible, there should be handwashing stations set up with reminders of proper handwashing protocols - hot water, soap, 20-30 seconds of washing. Alcohol-based hand sanitiser - ideally the automated ‘no touch’ design - should also be available throughout the workspace, particularly at entrances. Reminders for individuals to clean their own personal high touch surfaces, such as phones, tablets and keyboards multiple times per day should also be hung around the office or work environment.
Employee mental health awareness
The COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly challenging for everyone. For some people, there will be lasting effects on mental health due to the traumatic nature of the experience. This is particularly true if an employee or their loved one suffered severe illness, remains at a heightened risk for infection, or if they know someone who passed away because of COVID-19. Long periods of isolation can also impact people in different ways, so it is important to maintain compassion and patience as people begin to return to the workplace.