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Workplace Safety and Returning to Work: Guidance for COVID-19

employees social distancing

As employees go back to work in person during the pandemic, not only can the fear concern of contracting the COVID-19 virus cause stress and anxiety across your workforce but an outbreak can seriously jeopardize the health and well-being of your employees who are trusting you to protect them in the workplace. You can do your best to help ensure promote workplace safety by following recommendations for managing your returning workforce. Information from Paychex, OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) guidelines and any potential state or local guidelines can all help you manage employee concerns and employer liability.

Employee screening: strive to prevent and reduce transmission among all employees

Your staff depends on the definitive measures you've put in place that can maintain workplace safety. Although you need to develop a safety plan that is appropriate and specific to your business environment and industry, screening employees for COVID-19 symptoms is one of the most important and fundamental protocols an employer can take to proactively protect staff members. Ask employees to self-monitor themselves and  consider requiring any employee to stay home if they demonstrate any symptoms of COVID-19 -  primarily a cough, fever, lethargy, muscle or body aches, and/or difficulty breathing, among others.

The CDC recommends proactively identifying how an employee could be exposed to COVID-19 while at work. Daily employee health screenings can reduce this exposure. Screenings can be implemented in the form of a daily questionnaire or temperature readings. In addition to screening employees, an employer can provide COVID-19 antigen testing, which  identifies those employees who have already been exposed to the virus. The CDC temperature guidelines recommend that for critical infrastructure environments (e.g. a health care setting), a COVID-19 temperature screening should be conducted before an employee enters the building. Make sure you have the proper materials to conduct temperature screenings. To limit employees' exposure to the public, you may want to consider setting up a ride sharing initiative or carpooling program for those who typically rely on public transportation. Finally, familiarize yourself and adhere to any state or local requirements pertaining to data privacy and confidentiality issues around testing and screening.

If an employee contracts COVID--19, make sure they are separated from staff immediately and take prompt action. Doing so can help employees identify when they may not be well and help get them on track for receiving proper medical treatment and advice. You will also want to notify your insurance carrier to protect your employer liability.

Understanding vaccination policies  

As COVID-19 vaccination efforts continue to roll out across the U.S., many business leaders see themselves playing a role in employee vaccination. A recent Paychex snap poll* found that 75% of small businesses (10-49 employees) and 85% of medium-sized businesses (50-500 employees) plan to motivate their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

This critical time during the COVID-19 pandemic also brings with it numerous HR challenges for businesses.  Considerations for employers include, but are not limited to, considering whether to implement a COVID-19 vaccination policy, how to address requests for time away from work for vaccination, whether to track the vaccination status of employees, and much more.  As you consider your strategies for approaching these challenges, refer to our COVID-19 vaccine FAQ for more information.  Employers are reminded that they must comply with applicable federal, state and local laws.  Further, any employer considering implementing a mandatory vaccination policy should consult with their legal counsel with assistance in understanding their rights and responsibilities.   

Mitigate the risk of the COVID-19 virus in workstations and common areas

When it comes to COVID-19 workplace safety, the most successful efforts are those that are carefully planned, organized and documented. Taking proper measures to mitigate the risk of the COVID-19 virus in workstations and common areas should not be left to chance. Be sure to identify the supplies and actions necessary to maintain proper workplace hygiene.

Your plan should include proper techniques and guidance for wearing cloth face coverings or personal protective equipment (PPE) and frequent hand washing. There should be a disinfection and cleaning schedule for shared areas and high touch surfaces. Ensure employees have regular access to basic supplies such as face masks, soap, sinks, towels, and hand sanitizer. Other best practices include modifying traffic patterns around workstations to reduce congestion, adjusting the office layout to help ensure social distancing, and adding more breaks so employees aren't crowded in the break room.

Social distancing: consistently maintain safe business operations.

A social distancing policy structured around the CDC's recommendation of maintaining six feet of space can help increase workplace safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Be sure to clearly communicate and document all your social distancing policies to every employee. Stay current with any state or local requirements around social distancing.

There are numerous social distancing tools at your disposal. For starters, an employer can limit the number of employees in the workplace. Provide flexible sick leave and implement supporting policies and practices for those with pre-existing conditions and higher health risks. You can encourage work-from-home policies, conduct virtual meetings, establish a rotating schedule so fewer employees on-site at any one time. By assessing all essential functions, you can establish a plan for a possible decrease in the number of in-person employees.

Social distancing and workplace safety with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic can be addressed in other ways as well. To help protect employees, vendors, guests, and customers, look for opportunities to establish occupancy limits in break rooms, bathrooms, elevators, or even the office, restaurant, or retail store itself. For example, you can erect barriers between employees and guests at cash registers, counters, or other gathering places where employees interact with the public. Consider using visual cues such as markers on the floor to keep customers six feet apart. Finally, you can make changes to the internal layout to reduce foot traffic and congestion.

Maintain a clean and healthy work environment

Basic good hygiene is central to a return to work policy that emphasizes safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. While practices like washing your hands might seem obvious, your workplace safety plan should document specific procedures to ensure all employees are informed and following proper guidelines and recommended frequency. Be sure to post a coronavirus notice to employees in a visible place to remind them of acceptable good hygiene in your business.

Identify everyone who enters your business: employees, guests, customers, and vendors. You don't have control over how people behave outside your business, but you can establish protocols on what they do while they are in your workplace, such as using sanitation supplies. For instance, you may want to put hand sanitizer stations at the front door and throughout a store to encourage customer use. Hand sanitizer should also be provided at workstations and shared office spaces for employees along with wipes and cleaning supplies to disinfect counters, sinks, tables, microwaves, and other spaces. Establish and document a strict routine cleaning schedule that includes everything from registers to counters to personal cell phones.

If possible, provide outdoor environments for employees and customers (e.g. increasing outdoor seating if you operate a restaurant) and improve ventilation in the office and common areas. Limiting work-related employee travel can also help reduce exposure and mitigate the risk of a staff person bringing the virus back to the workplace. This may include canceling, adjusting or postponing, work-related meetings or gatherings that were initially scheduled to be off-site. Be sure any in-person gatherings are in accordance with the most current state and local regulations. Finally, adjust in-person meetings to be socially distanced and mandate cloth face coverings or move to a virtual platform.

Build controls specific to your business

As you establish your COVID-19 workplace safety plan, you can build controls specific to your business and industry. The CDC organizes these controls into three categories: engineering, administration, and PPE.

Engineering

Engineering controls refer to physical changes and modifications to the facilities and equipment in the work environment. You may erect protective barriers between employees operating cash registers and customers standing in line. Hair salons may install barriers between hair washing stations. An electronic payment reader can be placed away from the cashier and closer to customers or guests. You may set up a parking lot to instruct patients or patrons to call in from outside to announce they have arrived. You may remove tables and chairs to reduce the number of people in a break room or establish outdoor areas (heated in the winter) for employees to take breaks.

Administrative

Administrative controls refer to management and communications such as establishing a workplace safety document and posting aCOVID-19 notice to keep employees informed of current regulations, protocols, and requirements. Communications can extend to customers, asking them to stay home if they are feeling sick. Additionally, be sure to comply with OSHA COVID-19 injury and illness recording and reporting requirements.

PPE

PPE is a third important component of controlling workplace safety and something which you can monitor. Conduct a workplace exposure risk assessment to determine what PPE is needed for workers' specific job duties based on hazards and other environmental concerns. Select and provide appropriate PPE to workers at no cost. If it's appropriate, you may encourage some workers and all customers to wear their own approved facial coverings while providing extras at no charge if they forget theirs. Face coverings may also be required by some state or local laws

Conclusion

Effective workplace safety as employees return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic includes following local, state and federal requirements, CDC and OSHA recommendations as well as those from state and local agencies, and best practices that may vary across industries.  Your business’s long-term success and health relies on taking appropriate action around employee symptom screenings, workplace hygiene, social distancing measures, established controls, and handling employees who refuse to come back to work For additional guidance and input from a reputable source and to learn more about COVID-19 and your workforce, visit the Paychex COVID-19 Resource Center.

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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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