Returning to work safely during the pandemic

July 21, 2020 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
work during the pandemic

If you’ve been working remotely or have been furloughed during the pandemic and your employer is now reopening your workplace, you may have concerns about whether it’s safe to return to work during the pandemic. If you’re in a group that’s at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including people over 65 and those with certain chronic conditions such as kidney disease, serious heart disease, type 2 diabetes, COPD, conditions that weaken your immune system, or sickle cell disease, talk with your doctor and ask if he or she feels it’s safe for you to return to work during the pandemic or if there are special precautions you should take when you do return to work. If your doctor does feel it’s not safe for you to return at this point in the pandemic, ask her or him to write you a note to that effect, which you can share with your employer when you make a case for continuing to work remotely or remain on furlough.

Questions to ask about workplace safety

Before returning to work, ask your employer these questions to find out what steps the organization is taking to lower the risk of employees contracting the virus:

  • What physical changes are you making to the work environment to help keep employees safe? Of course, the type of changes that are possible will depend on where you work and the type of work you do. The goal is to allow for social distancing in the workplace, although in some jobs like healthcare, some assembly line work, and store checkouts, it is more difficult for employees to remain six feet away from others at all times. Ask if your employer is moving workstations six feet apart, installing barriers, staggering shifts so there are fewer people in the workplace, or operating at a reduced capacity. Other changes that may help lower the risk of spreading the virus include adding handwashing and/or hand sanitizer stations throughout the workspace, installing hands-free faucet, soap dispenser, and toilet mechanisms, ensuring adequate ventilation, and adding hands-free door opening systems.
  • What are your cleaning and disinfection protocols? Find out how often frequently touched surfaces and communal spaces like kitchens and break rooms will be cleaned and whether EPA-registered products will be used to disinfect surfaces.
  • Will you supply personal protective equipment? Ask if your employer will be providing all employees with masks and other needed equipment and supplies, which will vary by job type and exposure risk. Will you be required to provide your own protective equipment and will you be reimbursed for the cost? What are the rules for when and in what situations employees will be required to wear protective equipment and what steps can you take if a fellow employee is not following the guidelines?
  • Will you be regularly screening employees for symptoms of COVID-19 before they enter the workplace? The CDC recommends that employers do temperature checks and ask employees about whether they or anyone they’ve been in close contact with has been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or has spent time with anyone who has been diagnosed with the virus.
  • Will you alert employees if someone at the workplace has tested positive for COVID-19? Ask how this information will be shared, for example will all employees be alerted or only those who potentially came into contact with the ill employee. You’ll also want to know what steps your employer will take if someone does test positive—will employees be required to be tested, will the facility close for disinfection, will employees need to self-quarantine?
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