Authors: Soumi Eachempati APR 27, 2021
A list of actions employers can take to maintain a healthy workforce and compliance.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging for all organizations, manufacturers have had the especially daunting task of keeping their employees safe while keeping their businesses open. In the last 13 months, hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases have been reported in the manufacturing sector alone.
Due to the nature of the job, manufacturing employees face an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission. Unlike other industries where businesses could temporarily shut down or allow employees to work-from-home, manufacturers needed to remain open and employees on-site to produce essential products despite local infection rates.
Manufacturing employees frequently work in close quarters and, potentially in warmer environmental conditions that create varying capabilities for wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. There may also be a variety of socioeconomic factors that increase COVID-19 risk. For example, may have a high proportion of workers with language barriers that can interfere with or make it more difficult to access information or resources. Workers may also feel the need to underreport symptoms in order to continue working because they may not be able to afford taking time off if they don’t receive paid sick leave.
Recognizing the urgency of creating optimal safety measures in manufacturing, federal and state officials in states such as California have given new power to regulatory bodies for COVID-19-related issues. The following is a checklist for manufacturers to help them maintain both a healthy workforce and compliance with regulatory standards.
How to Prevent COVID-19 in The Workplace
There are several ways companies can be proactive in reducing their COVID-19 related risks:
Companies need all employees to understand the importance of COVID-19 prevention and acknowledge the potential consequences of their actions to co-workers and family and themselves. Employees need to know how the virus spreads and how their family members or co-workers may become severely ill—or worse—if a workplace-related COVID-19 outbreak occurs. Employees who understand the extent of the situation are more likely to help their companies prevent outbreaks.
A major component of that education should address off-site concerns such as socialization with friends and using public transportation. Because many individuals contract COVID-19 in the community and then bring it into the work environment, COVID-19 prevention needs to be stressed as an ongoing issue.
Now that vaccines are widely available to all adults in the United States, the value of getting vaccinated should also be included in companies’ educational efforts.
Companies need to make extensive workplace preparations for COVID-19 safety that require administrative, engineering and compliance initiatives. From an engineering standpoint, companies need to identify, evaluate and correct COVID-19 hazards. Cleanable partitions (such as plastic or glass) should be installed where appropriate, particularly in areas where social distancing is more difficult. There should also be an emphasis on maximizing airflow and monitoring ventilation patterns. Workers should spend as much time as possible outside or near windows unless poor outside air quality is a major issue.
Workplace cleaning protocols should be strict and fully compliant with local and federal guidelines. Companies need to identify commonly touched surfaces in their workplace, such as doorknobs and elevator buttons, and establish proper protocols. Shared utensils and equipment need to be identified, and companies need to either create cleaning protocols for these situations or modify duties accordingly. New equipment may have to be purchased in some circumstances, but it is an important investment for workforce health.
Time for hand hygiene should be built into existing practices. Companies should consult with appropriate personnel to understand the optimal frequency of their institutional cleanings so that hygiene is maintained without disrupting workflow.
Companies need to post clear and concise safety rules in the workplace that all employees must adhere to. All employees must follow established safety standards for the use and importance of not sharing personal protective equipment (PPE), including gloves, face shields and eyewear. Companies should also create rules around gathering, socialization and taking breaks.
How to Identify COVID-19 Before It Can Spread
COVID-19 needs to be identified early, before it can spread among your workforce. The best survey questionnaires capture all information surrounding COVID-19 risk, including travel and exposure risk, and are compliant with local and federal guidelines. Questionnaires should be accessible on multiple devices and available in multiple languages for maximum access and accuracy of potential COVID-19 cases. Don’t forget about site guests; COVID-19 risk needs to be assessed before visitors can enter the workplace as well. To achieve 100% adoption rate, it is critical that employers never punish employees for answering these surveys honestly.
A word of advice: It may be tempting to minimize the number of survey questions by batching symptoms together to decrease completion time, but this strategy will inevitably decrease survey accuracy and put companies at heightened risk for outbreaks.
In areas with substantial risk of COVID-19, asymptomatic cases must be detected. The only way to identify these cases is to test employees through a process called surveillance testing. While this practice requires upfront costs for testing supplies, detecting asymptomatic cases will result in enormous savings in terms of human lives as well as preventing revenue loss from plant closures and OSHA fines.
Determining which individuals to test with the right frequency needs to be strategized. Companies need to understand which employees, if infected with COVID-19, create the highest organizational risk. Consider those who have positions requiring special skills or talent or those who interact with the most people. Individuals who pose a higher risk may include a foreman who interacts with every worker on a site or a highly specialized IT manager whose work can’t be duplicated by anyone else in the company. This may not necessarily include the CEO, who might be able to work from home safely, and who might have others who could temporarily assume some overlapping responsibilities if needed.
Contain and Contact Trace
After a case of COVID-19 is identified, OSHA requires companies to identify others who were in close contact and are now at risk for catching COVID-19. Employers should be proactive in understanding their company workflow and identifying individuals who are likely to interact with one another, so in the event that there is a case, they are prepared to act quickly to contain the spread. For example, employers can conduct an environmental evaluation to see where ventilation is inferior and refer back to security camera footage to study mask compliance or areas where people are tending to gather in groups (e.g., the kitchen, smaller conference rooms or office supply room). Once a case of COVID-19 has been confirmed, it’s also important to stagger re-entry into the office and to be flexible about the start and end time of shifts.