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The COVID-19 outbreak presents a many challenges for business owners, executives, and HR professionals. Keeping business running smoothly amid dwindling demand, supply-line disruptions, and quarantines is no easy task. An on top of these considerations, you also have to ensure the safety of employees and put in place procedures to prevent them from becoming infected with COVID-19.

And while keeping your employees healthy is the right thing to do both morally and for long-term morale and productivity, it is also important from a compliance perspective. You don’t want to add an OSHA violation to the many concerns you’re dealing with during these challenging times. And OSHA has issued new recommendations regarding the outbreak.

That being said, there are simple steps you can take to ensure compliance and safety for all employees. You just need to follow some straightforward, common-sense best practices and implement some additional safety precautions. Let’s take a look at how you can follow OSHA guidelines to keep your team and your business safe during the COVID-19 outbreak, including:

  • Categorizing staff
  • Developing safety protocols
  • Maintaining a safe workplace
  • Educating employees on best practices
  • Identifying and handling exposure

Categorizing Staff

The first step that you should take to protect employees and ensure OSHA compliance is to categorize your team members to organize your workplace safety initiatives. Essentially, you need to figure out who needs to be protected and in which ways.

First off, divide your team into remote-capable and non-remote workers. During the COVID-19 outbreak, whether your area has issued quarantine orders or not, working from home is the best workplace safety policy. It does the most effective job of minimizing employees’ risk of exposure and eliminates nearly every OSHA concern you may have. So everyone who can work from home absolutely should.

But what about those who can’t work from home? Well, here’s where it gets a little trickier. You may have to decide who among them counts as essential staff: employees who need to be working even if they cannot work from home. Your goal should be to have as few people in the workplace as you possibly can while keeping your business functioning. You can approach this in a few ways. For example, you can reduce your workforce through layoffs or furloughs.

Alternatively, you can have employees work partial schedules so someone is always holding down the fort while limiting each employee’s risk of infection. Depending on your resources, you can do this for the same or reduced pay. This method divides positions rather than employees between essential or non-essential. Identify what workforce you need in the office every day and then modify the schedule to maintain that workforce while thinning out the individual risk as much as possible.

Finally, determine the risk levels for your essential staff or positions. This will help you structure your safety precautions. For example, stockroom workers or BOH team members won’t need as much protection as those working the registers or making deliveries. Or it might be the case that your entire workforce falls under OSHA’s definition of high exposure risk or very high exposure risk, generally reserved for healthcare or morgue workers. Whether subdividing your workforce or assessing your team’s general status, it’s important to know the real level of risk so that you can adopt the appropriate safety measures.

Developing Safety Protocols

The next step is to develop your safety protocols. You need a clear plan and strategy around these protocols in order to ensure compliance. So, you should decide what your plan will be for maintaining safety standards and handling exposure as soon as possible.

We’ll explore what those plans should look like in the next couple of sections, but we can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you start planningimmediately if you haven’t done so already.

Get your department heads, especially HR, executive team, and any outside consultants involved in the planning process. Contracting an HR or compliance specialist can help you develop an effective COVID-19 workplace safety and staff management plan.

Maintaining a Safe Workplace

Once you have reduced the number of employees in the workplace to the bare minimum necessary to keep things running, you have to make sure that those team members will be able to do their job safely, with the minimum possible risk of exposure. That means formulating a plan to maintain a safe workplace.

Obviously, all preexisting OSHA standards hold and you should maintain your compliance policies. But you will have to implement several new procedures to keep your team safe.

First off, you need to keep the workplace as clean as possible to eliminate the virus if anyone brings it in. That means regularly cleaning and disinfecting all workspaces, equipment, and commonly touched areas. Kitchens and bathrooms, phones and registers, desks and board tables should all be sanitized regularly using EPA approved cleaning solutions that are proven to eliminate coronavirus. Also, provide proper sanitation materials for your employees including alcohol based hand sanitizer, especially for frontline staff.

Next, ensure that your workplace is a closed system to the best of your ability. If you have control over what comes into the workplace it will be much easier to prevent potential COVID-19 exposure. That means limiting customer and partner access to the workplace. If you run a physical shop or restaurant of any kind, take steps to minimize the number of clients who can be inside at a time and outline approved areas for them to enter. Even better, switch to a curbside pickup or delivery model. The same goes for internal movement: do your best to keep high-risk employees away from lower-risk employees. For example, cashiers shouldn’t enter the stockroom. And all employees should minimize their interactions. Meetings should be transitioned to phone calls or video chats whenever possible.

Finally, provide employees with the personal protection equipment that is appropriate for their risk level. Frontline workers should have masks and gloves but BOH may or may not need these items, depending on local guidelines and community spread within the area your team works. You should review OSHA guidelines and talk to your leadership to determine what equipment each of your employees needs, but it is important to remember that needs will vary depending on risk levels.

Educating Employees on Best Practices

One of the most nerve-wracking aspects of workplace safety and compliance is the fact that at the end of the day, your protective measures are only as good as your employees’ compliance. And with the COVID-19 outbreak, stakes are higher than ever. If employees don’t take the outbreak seriously and instead cut corners, they could put the entire workforce at risk. That, in turn, can cripple your business’s ability to function at a time when it is already on thin ice.

You cannot entirely control employee behavior. But what you can do is make sure that they know exactly what they should be doing and what the consequences will be if they fail to abide by new and existing guidelines and procedures.

That means educating them on best practices, including:

  • Properly covering coughing or sneezing
  • Avoiding touching their faces & washing their hands if they do
  • Regular hand-washing using proper procedures (20+ seconds)
  • Not touching other employees’ equipment
  • Reporting any safety or health concerns, especially regarding COVID-19

This last best practice deserves some more attention. You need employees to be extremely proactive when it comes to informing you of any potential risks. That includes potential exposure outside of the workplace, coworker failure to follow procedures, and symptoms that employees notice in themselves, customers, or coworkers. The sooner you catch any risks the safer your team will be. Emphasize the importance of communicating any concerns and consider implementing policies that protect people who report any issues.

Identifying and Handling Exposure

Finally, you need to figure out how you will identify whether an employee has been exposed or infected and how you will handle the situation.

It’s a true nightmare scenario: you’ve done all you can to protect your team members but now one of them has been exposed to the virus or seems to have COVID-19. What do you do?

Unfortunately, to echo many public health officials around the world, it’s probably not a matter of if, but when. Don’t avoid creating a game plan out of self-confidence, denial, or fear. Imagine you found out that employees would start showing up to work with the virus next week. Now how do you respond?

Well, the good news is that we’ve put together a handy checklist of steps to take when you confirm an employee is positive for COVID-19 or has been exposed.

But, generally speaking, here are the steps that you should plan to take:

  • Work with the employee to plan next steps: remote from work, sick leave, etc
  • Find out who the employee might have infected by talking to them about their recent exposure
  • Immediately complete a deep-clean of effected spaces
  • Inform employees of potential exposure and reeducate them about best practices
  • Monitor workforce for signs of an outbreak
  • Set terms and create a plan for affected employee’s return to work-from-home

Key Takeaways

Maintaining a safe workplace and OSHA compliance amid the COVID-19 outbreak can be an intimidating task. But it also is not as difficult as it sounds, even though the stakes are so high. Just remember to:

  • Determine who needs to be in the office and take steps to keep everyone else at home
  • Figure out the level of risk for each employee or role and establish safety precautions for each
  • Implement stringent cleaning measures to disinfect the workplace regularly, focusing on high-risk areas
  • Educate employees on best practices to protect themselves and each other
  • Develop policies for managing employee infection or exposure including determining who else may have been exposed, warning other team members, redoubling safety precautions, and planning for the affected employee’s transition away from the workplace and their return to the workplace
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