Planning for a safe return to work

COVID-19 is still a growing concern. How are you navigating the complex issue of continuing operations while maintaining the safety of your employees as the top priority?

Following the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-2019) pandemic, most of the Member States of the European Union (EU) have put in place a number of measures, including those affecting workplaces, to fight the spread of the disease. The business world is severely affected by this crisis, therefore, all sections of society – including businesses, employers and social partners have an important role in protecting workers, their families and the society at large.

The topic of “lockdown exit strategies” has dominated headlines the last months. In more recent days these headlines has been replaced with strategies for reopening the markets that has been shut down for a longer period of time. The reopening of multiple markets allows for companies to get back to work routines – a fact that makes individual firms responsible for laying out a return-to-work plan that has the health and safety of their employees as its main priority.

Phased return to work
Just like everyone else, company leaders find themselves in this situation for the first time. They are now facing decisions they have never had to take before and setting up a plan for their employees return to the workplace is one of them. In order to plan for a safe return, companies should set up a phased return to the workplace meaning gradually reintroducing them to the work routine. A phased return to work is a plan laid out for individual staff members who are returning to work after a period of long term absence (over 20 days or 4 calendar weeks).

Some countries have issued national policies and guidance for a safe return to work, and others plan to do so as the situation continues to unfold. The formulation of such policies and guidance should have a human-centered approach that sets the rights and needs of the countries workers’ at the heart of economical, social and environmental decisions. This article serves to provide phased to work plan examples and guidance.

What are employers’ obligations in respect of COVID-19?
Many countries have experienced weeks or months in lock-down. This has forced companies to close their offices and employees to work remotely. As the restrictions are easing, company leaders have a great responsibility in setting guidelines that conforms with the recommendations issued by the government. The decision that company leaders are facing now is much more complex than if the office should re-open or not. They rather face several tough challenges in the intersect of continuing the business meanwhile putting their employees health first. In order to take their responsibility, they need to set up a clear plan for the employees return to work.

First of all, employers need to ensure that they are taking any necessary step to protect their employees. All employers have health and safety obligations that needs to be followed. Meanwhile, companies should keep employees informed about any risks that they might be exposed to while carrying out their duties. Their first step should therefore be to conduct a risk assessment where all factors that make employees susceptible for infection is being considered.

In the risk assessment, business leaders should consider several aspects including screening the questions below. All of these aspects then needs to come down to a solid and clear plan before reopening the workplace after a period of being shut down.

  • which groups of employees are most critical in getting back to the physical workplace?
  • What are the demographic aspects of the company (eg. gender, age distribution, occupational roles)?
  • What kind of business is conducted and how much physical interaction is there between collaboration and customers?
  • How do I ensure that employees feel safe when they return to the workplace?
  • Do we have employees who are in or live with people who are in risk groups that we need to pay extra attention to?
  • How could testing of COVID-19 be carried out from a logistical perspective and what test should we use (e.g PCR or antibody test) now and in the future?

Minimising exposure to COVID-19 at work
As companies plan for the return to work, they need in addition to a risk assessment implement a control hierarchy. This means that all risk that can be eliminated should be eliminated. If that is not possible, all measures that minimizes the risk for employees exposure to the risk should be taken. In general, collective measures should be prioritized over individual measures. Collective measures includes e.g. reducing the workforce present at the office, while individual measures could e.g. be to use personal protective equipment (PPE). Below follows examples on actions that minimizes the risk for exposure of COVID-19 at the workplace. These can me more or less applicable to different workplaces. Phased return to work plan examples includes:

  • Identify risk groups: Before deciding on any measures each firm and department within the firm needs to identify which and how many employees that should be considered part of a risk group. When possible, the most vulnerable employees should work remotely. The risk group should also include employees that has a close family member or partner that is at high risk.
  • Only carry out the most necessary tasks physically at the workplace; the employees that aren’t able to perform their tasks if not present at the workplace should be prioritized first. Ensure that only workers who are essential to the job are present at the workplace and minimise the presence of third parties.
  • Reduce physical contact between workers as far as possible. Isolate workers who can carry out their tasks alone and who don’t require specialised equipment or machinery that cannot be moved.
  • Place an impervious barrier between workers, especially if they are not able to keep a two-metre distance from each other. Barriers can be purpose-made or improvised using items such as plastic sheeting, partitions, mobile drawers, or storage units.
  • Eliminate, and if not possible limit, physical interaction with and between customers. For example, through online or phone orders, contactless delivery or managed entry (while also avoiding crowding outside), and physical distancing both inside and outside the premises.
  • When delivering goods, do so through pick-up or delivery outside the premises. Advise drivers on good hygiene in the cab and provide them with appropriate sanitation gel and wipes.
  • Supply soap, water and hand sanitiser at convenient places and advise workers to wash their hands frequently. Clean your premises frequently, especially counters, door handles, tools and other surfaces that people touch often and provide good ventilation if possible.
  • Avoid excessive workload on cleaning staff by taking appropriate measures, such as assigning additional staff to the tasks and asking workers to leave their workspace tidy.
  • If you have identified a risk of infection despite having applied all feasible safety measures, then provide the employees that are exposed to the risk with necessary PPE.
  • Place posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette and hand hygiene at the entrance of the workplace and in other areas where they will be seen.
  • Facilitate workers’ use of individual rather than collective transport, for example by creating a space for car parking or storage of bicycles, and encourage workers to walk to work when possible.
  • Put in place policies on flexible leave and remote working to limit presence at the workplace.
  • If close contact is unavoidable, keep it to less than 15 minutes.
  • Organize shifts. Minimize the risk of close contact by arranging the employees work hours, breaks and lunch hour in shifts. This reduces the contact between the workers at the most critical situations. This should also include organising cleaning and sanitation tasks in a meaningful way.

Medical testing as part of the phased return to work plan
In addition to the measures mentioned above, employers benefit from adding testing programmes to their phased return to work plan. Testing could in this case include temperature checks, PCR testing or screening of antibodies and would provide the employer with valuable information both in regards of preventing the disease from spreading and from guiding workforce planning decisions. The information that testing provides the employer with is critical to any successful return to the workplace.

Almost every country has implemented targets for the number of COVID-19 tests that should be performed daily. These targets are ambitious and requires large resources. Testing for COVID-19 is important on many levels. For the society, testing for active or recent virus infection gives information about the magnitude of the spread. For companies, testing of its employees and the results provides information that can prevent the spread and guide decisions in regards of returning to the workplace. For the individual, the test result provides recommendations and information about the risk you are exposed to. Many companies have due to all of these benefits decided to take an active part in testing its employees. This gives the employer a better foundation for making the right decisions at the right time and for the right persons.

As many companies does engage in COVID-19 testing (including PCR, antibody tests and temperature checks), one must consider the regulatory aspects that it affects.
Any screening or tracking initiatives should be implemented in coordination with internal privacy officers, HR, and compliance teams and follow the government’s recommendations.

Return to work plan template
The COVID-19 Response Plan (linked below) details the policies and practices necessary for the employer to follow in order to meet the Government’s ‘Return to Work Safely Protocol’ and to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.

The plan will give an overview of key areas that employers must address to ensure compliance with the protocol and to minimise the risk to workers and others. All workplaces, including those with customer-facing interaction or areas where workers share a workplace, are required to develop a plan and the use of this guidance and associated checklists will help in this.

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