Employers and occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals have a vital role to play in preventing the spread of coronavirus within the workplace.
In an effort to mitigate the spread of the disease, an increasing number of employers are making efforts to modify working patterns, including encouraging staff to work from home where they are able and if they develop any Covid-19 symptoms.
During a global pandemic, many employees will feel anxious and concerned about their health, safety and wellbeing. It is important that employers communicate with their staff to allay these concerns and fears where they can.
Employers can do this by:
- communicating clearly to workers who feel unwell that they should not be coming into the workplace
- exploring how their organisation will continue to function if workers, contractors and suppliers cannot enter the place of business
- ensuring the workplace is clean and hygienic (taking care to wipe surfaces regularly with disinfectant)
- conducting risk assessments and communicating the outcomes to workers
- developing plans for different shift patterns to minimise staff overlap at shift change
- implementing split site or location specific operations where feasible
- implementing social distancing measures in the workplace
- implementing rapid lateral flow testing for all workers
- promoting personal hygiene through poster displays and the strategic location of hand sanitising stations
- encouraging vaccination.
Personal hygiene is an important preventative measure to help curtail the spread of the virus. Employers have a duty of care to their workforce and should ensure workers have access to appropriate hygiene facilities such as hot water, soap, disposable hand towels, hand sanitiser and bins for the disposal of used tissues and hand towels.
Workers are advised to maintain good hygiene standards around the workplace by following the latest advice from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website, which includes the following basic protective measures:
- Sanitise your hands frequently with alcohol-based sanitiser or wash with soap and water for at least twenty seconds
- Maintain social distancing of at least two meters (six feet distance) between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing
- Avoid touching eyes, mouth and nose
- Practice respiratory hygiene – wear a mask or face covering when required, cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, dispose of waste (tissue and hand towel) into a waste receptacle after use
- If you have a fever, a new, consistent cough and difficulty breathing then seek early medical care. Stay home if you feel unwell and follow the directions of your local health authority
- Stay informed of the latest developments on Covid-19
- Follow advice given by your healthcare provider, your national and local public health authority or your employer on how to protect yourself and others from Covid-19.
In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) has advised people to get a Covid 19 test if they develop the following symptoms: fever, new consistent cough or loss/or change to sense of smell or taste. If you test positive you need to self-isolate for 10 days to prevent transmission to others. The self-isolation period includes the day your symptoms started (or the day you had the test if you do not have symptoms) and the next 10 full days. If you develop symptoms or your symptoms persist you may need to self-isolate for longer.
For anyone testing positive or developing symptoms, the NHS has stated:
- Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital
- You do not need to contact 111 to tell them you're staying at home.
Emergency planning advice
IOSH advises that organisations follow good practice in emergency planning, preparedness and response. This can be achieved by adopting the following steps:
- Horizon scanning for future threats and opportunities
- Develop a response plan for if someone in the workplace becomes ill with suspected Covid-19. This should include the immediate response eg isolate the individual and contact the local health authority
- Plan to identify persons who may be at risk without stigma or discrimination
- Explore ways of remote working (teleworking) that will allow workers to continue their work from home
- Develop a business continuity plan for an outbreak, which covers:
- How your organisation will continue to function if workers, contractors and suppliers cannot come to your place of business
- Visitors and vendors who have access to the building
- Communicating with workers and contractors about the plan and their role in it
- Ensure the plan addresses mental health and the social consequences of a case of Covid-19 in the workplace.
For further information on emergency planning read the World Health Organization (WHO) Critical preparedness, readiness and response actions.
Horizon scanning for the future:
“There will be other pandemics and other major health emergencies. No single government or multilateral agency can address this threat alone,” the leaders say in their article. “The question is not if, but when. Together, we must be better prepared to predict, prevent, detect, assess and effectively respond to pandemics in a highly coordinated fashion. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe.” WHO
One of the big takeaways from the Covid-19 pandemic is that worldwide we need to be better prepared for future risks. To look forward we will need to undertake horizon scanning for the next ‘big threat’. What do we mean by horizon scanning?
Horizon scanning is the intelligence-gathering part of strategic foresight. It is concerned with emerging trends, issues and uncertainties that the future may bring and assessing their potential impact on an organisation.
Horizon scanning is not the exclusive domain of multi-nationals, large organisations, and governments. The simple truth of horizon scanning is that it is about anticipating what might be around the ‘proverbial corner’ in the short, medium and/or long term (as locally defined), no matter the size or distribution of an organisation. By conducting effective horizon scanning, an organisation will be able to:
- Bring together a group of experts that can help to ‘build a picture’ of the future threats and opportunities that the organisation should consider
- Analyse whether the organisation is prepared for potential threats or opportunities or, more likely, establish if the organisation is prepared for future changes. These might include changes that:
- Negatively (or positively) affect the organisation’s core (or support) functions
- Identify future challenges within the existing business model
- Identify the potential requirement for / diversion of significant resources
- Influence the long-term survival (financial profit/loss) of the organisation
- Temporarily stop business, make life harder or even put the organisation in peril.
- Facilitate discussions between the experts to identify the potential solutions that these threats or opportunities may bring
- Give insight into how the organisation might approach, implement and manage these solutions to mitigate the effects, or take advantage of these new or emerging circumstances.
Think of how the Covid-19 pandemic could have been reacted to differently if governments and multinational organisations had used the 2003 SARs outbreak in China and the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic in the United Kingdom as a potential threat? What would the response have then been to this much wider-spread pandemic?
Managing your workers
Professions that have a greater exposure to the virus include: health care workers offering direct care (eg in acute and emergency care settings, rehabilitation hospitals, mental health hospitals, long term care facilities), fire fighters, police officers, and other key workers who work in close proximity to their clients. These workers should be offered and the opportunity to participate in a vaccination programme. Where a worker contracts Covid-19 as a direct consequence of their work, this is termed an occupational disease. The employer has a responsibility to prevent workers from developing Covid-19 from the workplace.
Self or group isolation and quarantine:
Self-isolation is when a person or group of people do not leave their home because they have, or they think they might have Covid 19. In the event that an individual or a household of individuals needs to isolate, employers must consider how they will facilitate employees being placed in or working under self-isolation.
This includes those who are not sick but who live with somebody who is.
When to self-isolate:
- you have any of the symptoms of Covid-19 (a high temperature; a new, continuous cough; or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste)
- you've tested positive for Covid-19
- someone you live with has symptoms or has tested positive
- someone in your childcare or support bubble has symptoms or has tested positive and you’ve been in close contact with them since their symptoms started or during the 48 hours before they started
- you've been told you've been in contact with someone who tested positive
- you have arrived in a country from abroad – check current national guidelines on how to quarantine on arrival as these rules change regularly
Certifying absence from work:
We strongly suggest employers use their discretion around the need for medical evidence for a period of absence where an employee is advised to stay at home due to suspected Covid-19 (in accordance with the public health advice being issued by the government).
IOSH also advises that employers:
- Use discretion on the need for medical evidence for a period of absence where an employee is advised to self-isolate due to suspected Covid-19 and follow advice provided by the national authorities.
- Ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies
- Talk to companies that provide subcontracted or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies
- Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with flu-like symptoms to validate their illness or to return to work. This is because healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and unable to provide such documentation in a timely way
- Should maintain flexible policies which permit employees to stay home to care for a sick or dependent family member, since more employees may need to do this than is usual.
Managing occupational safety resources
IOSH’s publication Managing the safety, health and security of mobile workers sets out the aspects of safety, health and security for which organisations should take responsibility when dealing with workers travelling for work or on international assignment.
Advances in information technology meaning that more people are working away from the office, this publication offers guidance on how employers can develop a remote working policy that encompasses all the relevant health and safety management issues.
Developed jointly with the International SOS Foundation, this occupational safety and health guide emphasises the need for dynamic risk assessment and planning for critical situations.
Our research into distributed workers, Out of sight, out of mind, aimed to help both line managers and OSH professionals ensure the safety and health of workers that spend at least some of their work time away from a main office or location. The study generated a toolkit for health and safety practitioners to enhance development of line management behaviours.
If you are interested in safety and health courses, our Managing Occupational Health and Safety online course provides content on this matter.