Is Your Business Prepared For COVID-19?

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With the coronavirus outbreak that has spread all over the world, governments have shut borders and imposed quarantines, and companies have imposed travel bans. The human and economic impacts on businesses have been stark.

I have personally taken this pandemic as a wake-up call for my company to carefully review the strategies, policies, and procedures I have in place to protect my employees, customers, and operations in this and future pandemics. I wanted  to share this information with you so that you can do the same. Please feel free to share this with anyone that you think would benefit from this very necessary information.

  1. How can we best protect our employees from exposure in the workplace?

The coronavirus is thought to spread  largely through respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing, and it seems to spread easily. It may also be possible to become infected by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching one’s nose or mouth. The CDC advises that employees should:

  • Stay home if they have respiratory symptoms (coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath) and/or a fever.
  • Leave work if they develop these symptoms while at the workplace.
  • Shield coughs and sneezes with a tissue, elbow, or shoulder (not the bare hands).
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid shaking hands entirely to reduce the risk of spreading infection. Though that might be awkward at times, it’s an increasingly common practice in hospitals and clinics.

As hand washing is one of the most effective defenses, employers need to make sure that employees have ready access to washing facilities and that those are kept well stocked with soap and paper towels. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes should be distributed throughout the workplace, and all frequently touched surfaces such as workstations, counter tops and doorknobs should be routinely cleaned. Increased cleaning of common areas using standard cleaning agents can also reduce risk of spread of respiratory disease. Unless you are in the medical field, the CDC does not recommend a stockpile of face masks. One they are in short supply and two the CDC says they do not  recommend the use of face  masks by healthy people to protect against the infection.

  1. When should we exclude workers or visitors from the work space?

As discussed, employees should stay home or go home if they have symptoms of coronavirus infection. But dedicated staff  often  resist taking sick days, instead dragging themselves into work where they may infect others. Given the threat this epidemic presents, managers shouldn’t hesitate to send employees who present symptoms of possible coronavirus home. Likewise, employees or visitors who are symptomatic or at high risk for the virus should be kept separate from staff and helped with arrangements to leave the workplace and obtain medical evaluation while minimizing their public exposure. For example, they should avoid public places and public transportation, and, ideally, should stay six feet away from others unless they are wearing a mask.

Public health organizations recommend that companies bar employees or visitors from coming to the workplace for a period 14 days after a “medium” or “high-risk” exposure to the virus generally meaning having been in close contact with someone who is known to be infected, or having traveled from a high-risk region.

  1. Should we revise our benefits policies in cases where employees are barred from the work-site or we close it? 

The likelihood that increasing numbers of employees will be unable to work either because they are sick or must care for others means that companies should review their paid time off and sick leave policies now. Policies that give employees confidence that they will not be penalized and can afford to take sick leave are an important tool in encouraging self-reporting and reducing potential exposure

Most companies will treat coronavirus in their policies as they would any other illness, and sick leave or short-term disability insurance would be applicable.  However, exclusion from the workplace might not be covered by disability policies, and prolonged absence could last longer than available sick leave. Companies should make their policies clear on this now and communicate about these policies with employees. Most will want to offer protections to their workforce to the extent that is financially feasible.

  1. Have we maximized employees’ ability to work remotely?

While many jobs require people to be physically present, work, including meetings that can be done remotely should be encouraged  if coming to work or traveling risks exposure to the virus. Videoconferencing, for instance, is a good alternative to risky face-to-face meetings.

  1. Do we have reliable systems for real-time public health communication with employees?

Dangerous rumors and worker fears can spread as quickly as a virus. It is imperative for companies to be able to reach all workers, including those not at the work-site, with regular, internally coordinated, factual updates about infection control, symptoms, and company policy regarding remote work and circumstances in which employees might be excluded from or allowed to return to the workplace.  These communications should come from or be vetted by the emergency response team, and they should be carefully coordinated to avoid inconsistent policies being communicated  by different managers or functions. Clearly this requires organizations to maintain current phone/text and email contact information for all employees and test organization-wide communication  periodically. If you don’t have a current, universal contact capability already, now is a good time to create this.

  1. Should we revise our policies around international and domestic business travel?

A lot of companies are now restricting travel to and from Asia. It is prudent to limit employee business travel from areas where the coronavirus is most prevalent, both to prevent illness and to prevent loss of productivity due to quarantine or employee exclusion from the workplace after travel. Employees should be especially careful not to travel if they feel unwell, as they might face quarantine on return if they have a fever even without significant risk of coronavirus infection.

  1. Are supervisors adequately trained?

Companies should be actively training or planning to train their supervisors. Whatever form the training takes, supervisors should have ready access to appropriate information (such as on infection control and company policies) and should know who to contact within the firm to report exposures. Supervisors or other designated persons in the company should promptly notify local public health authorities about any suspected exposure. A web search for “local health department” and postal code or city or county name will generally yield accurate contact information. In the US, supervisors can also contact the CDC at 800-232-4636 with questions about coronavirus.

Diligent planning for global health emergencies can help protect employees, customers, and the business.  But plans are only as good as their execution. Companies should use the current situation to optimize and battle-test their plans. Whether or not coronoavirus becomes a full-blown pandemic, these capabilities will prove invaluable as the emergence of a global pandemic, caused by this coronavirus or another agent in the future, is not a matter of “if” but “when.”