Return To Work Safely After COVID-19 Shutdown

Following the breakout of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, many countries have put in place a number of measures; including those affecting workplaces, to fight the spread of the disease. The world of work is severely affected during this crisis; therefore, all sections of society, including businesses, employers and social partners must play a role in order to protect workers, their families and society at large.

Now after a few months in lockdown, self-isolation or under the safer-at-home orders, countries throughout the world are starting to ease the restrictions, and businesses are looking forward to reopening their operations as soon as possible. But even when restrictions are lifted, there is a lot to be considered before businesses can reopen their doors. Once the physical distancing measures achieve a sufficient reduction in COVID-19 transmission rates, national administrations are authorizing a gradual resumption of work activities (Guidelines for Opening up America Again). This is being done stepwise, with work that is considered essential for health protection and the economy authorized first, and work that can be done effectively while working from home last. However, regardless of how and to what extent normal work activities resume, it is highly likely that some measures will remain in place for some time to avoid a steep increase in infection rates [CDC Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)].

Whether employers and workers had to implement new procedures and practices in a very short time, or to suspend their work and business activities, appropriate preventive measures will help to achieve a safe and healthy return to work and contribute to suppressing transmission of COVID-19. Two primary elements to consider will include: guidance from regional, country, state and local officials; and knowing the risks as pertain to your specific area and operation. Occupational Safety and Health authorities around the globe have produced guidelines to help in this process (OSHA; BOHS; EU-OSHA). Based on these guidelines, local jurisdictions have developed, or are in the process of doing so, their own recommendations and/or requirements. And while strategies and guidelines differ, the key element of all remains a risk based approach to restarting work. Just as under normal working conditions, the identification and assessment of risks in both physical and psychosocial working environments is the starting point for managing occupational safety and health under COVID-19 measures.

A risk assessment or job hazard analysis (JHA) should not only be carried out for COVID-19 before returning to work to consider risks from restarting processes and ensure protocols are in place; but all existing risk assessments or JHAs in your organization should be reviewed to factor in new aspects before resuming work fully and before all workers return to the workplace. For example, if social distancing measures are required and adaptations to the layout of the workplace may be necessary, whether a change in working patterns is needed, or if PPE supply shortage has been identified, and so on.

When it comes to COVID-19, businesses need to think out-of-the-box about their exposures. The most basic and routine activities that never before would prompt a need for a risk assessment will require one now. For example, “How do I get a cup of coffee?” or, “What if a sick person enters my business?”, “How do I know if valeting a customer’s car is safe?” You may need to perform a walkthrough of the premises and consider high-risk areas, such as breakrooms and other areas where people may congregate. It is also important to consider what tasks employees typically perform and whether or not they are especially exposed to COVID-19 risks when performing their duties. When performing this assessment, you will need to make note of high-risk individuals, such as staff members who meet with customers or individuals with preexisting medical conditions. When analyzing your risks, consider potential compliance requirements, employee safety, business disruptions, reputational harm, financial losses and other consequences.

While your primary focus will be on creating a workplace that prevents the transmission of COVID-19, you will also need to consider those risks and hazards related to restarting work processes or equipment after it has not been in use after a period of time, or even assess the risks associated with getting your employees safely to and from work. For example; driving after a prolonged period of staying off the road, or using public transport.

A great way to assess risks and share with others is by creating a JHA worksheet. While the complexity of risk assessments will differ from business to business, they typically involve the following steps:

  • Identify hazards and risk factors that have the potential to cause harm - (hazard identification).
  • Analyze and evaluate the risk associated with that hazard (risk - analysis, and risk evaluation).
  • Determine appropriate ways/develop solutions to eliminate the hazard, or - control the risk when the hazard cannot be eliminated (risk control).

Essentially, a job hazard analysis is a thorough look at your workplace to identify those things, situations, processes, etc. that may cause harm, particularly to people. After identification is made, you analyze and evaluate how likely and severe the risk is. When this determination is made, you can next, decide what measures should be in place to effectively eliminate or control the harm from happening.

Like most health risks, reducing the risk from COVID-19 involves the use of the hierarchy of controls. Whilst the hierarchy focuses on the important aspect of elimination first, it is essential that a range of controls are adopted and that these are integrated with each other.

If you anticipate reopening for business soon, don’t wait to conduct a risk assessment. Start now so you can show your customers, employees and vendors the proactive steps you’ve taken to minimize or avoid potential risks. In the U.S., for example, some jurisdictions will be requiring businesses to have a so called “registration” or “attestation” prior to re-opening, which can be achieved through completing a “detailed risk assessment in accordance with the state guidelines” (Example: Ventura County, State of California).

To do this effectively, a job safety analysis (JSA) should be conducted, and JSABuilder can assist! JSABuilder.com is a comprehensive and easy-to-use on-line JHA software that will help create, document and manage your JSA worksheets and Activity Hazard Analysis (AHA) templates. Our easy-to-answer questions and lists of pre-programmed workplace hazards and controls, our super-simple technology gives you the information you need to make your workplace safer, keep you in compliance and to keep your costs down. Try JSABuilder today to create JSA worksheets for your business!

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Also, follow us on Twitter @JSABuilder, where we Tweet about Health and Safety, provide Safety tips and updates on current Health and Safety topics. It’s important to review guidance from your Occupational Safety and Health authorities, state and local agencies, industry associations as well as your local public health department prior to conducting a risk assessment. References to various sources of information and editorial reviews of reopening guidance publications may also be found on www.JSABuilder.com.