A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: How to return to work safely during a pandemic; it won’t be fast as workplaces adjust

Last Friday President Trump unveiled guidelines for opening back up America, a three-phased approach based on data and science from several public health experts. These guidelines will help state and local officials when reopening their economies, getting people back to work, and continuing to protect American lives.

At some point and time in the near future, America is going to go back to work and life as we use to know it will eventually return to normal. Every state will vary differently, but the order will soon come and will be a slow row. It’s not going to snap back to normal after our Governor or our President has given the order.

How the U.S. will go from widespread quarantine to some resemblance of back to normal is still a huge unknown to most as governors weigh the data, science, and the phases laid out before them. Until the means to implement fast and universal testing, the country will have to open back up much slower than some would like. Therefore, the emphases moving forward will be to ramp up our testing capabilities in an expedited manner.

Employers in rural areas and suburbs that saw fewer confirmed cases of coronavirus and resulting deaths will have an easier time convincing employees that it’s safe to return to the office than those in New York City.

With the potential for a re-surge of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths looming, the Back-to-Work order will be staged, happening in those regions and areas where the virus infection rates are very low. It will vary by industry and the availability of personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.

It will almost certainly happen in waves driven by science, motivated by consumer demand and employer desperation, and it will vary by region and industry. Many are looking to China for guidance as their economy has been slowly coming back online in recent weeks as the government lifts lockdown orders.

I suspect that manufacturing such as automakers will be first to open back up their plants, and many of them have been retrofitting and separating as many workstations as possible to try to maintain the 6-foot social distancing requirements. For instance, Fiat Chrysler and Tesla both saying they expect to begin production again on May 4.

For some services in high demand, it will snap back almost immediately. For instance — dentists, health care, elective surgeries, barbershops, beauty salons — there will be a backlog of demand that will be driving this need.

Even with such demand, many will have to stagger their appointments, hours of operation and alter their waiting rooms and workstations to try to maintain good social distancing guidelines. A plentiful supply of masks will need to be on hand to safely accomplish this re-opening of these certain services.

Office workers in urban areas will struggle because many of those workspaces are not designed for social distancing. Open office settings, as well as side by side cubicles, will present more of a challenge than places with individual offices.

If any of you have worked inside one of these cubical farms then you know that they are merely padded cells without doors. To emphasize the potential for infection in a cubical farm environment, all you have to remember back to the time when your cubical neighbor came to work wearing bad perfume or cologne.

To overcome this, management will look to spread out the cubical work stations if possible or relocate people to different or empty cubicles. If that is not an option, managers will have to look to vary start times and or alternate workdays in the office.

Many of us are desperate to go out to eat, catch a movie or get back to church, and according to opening America guidelines sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues, places of worship can operate but under strict physical distancing protocols.

This will come with challenges and many of these places will not be able to operate at capacity because of the social distancing guidelines. Restaurants will have to remove or close tables/booths, theaters will have to limit the number of seating, and churches will have to open additional services to accommodate the social distancing orders.

For other industries, the same urgency may not exist due to the economic condition that the shutdown left us with, as many people have missed paychecks and put small business owners back on their heels. Therefore I suspect that retail, auto sales and several other non-essential services may struggle to return to normal for several months to come.

I also suspect that public pools, festivals, concerts, and other large venues may stay closed through the end of summer.

Employers have a relatively low legal risk, but a high reputational concern if they rush employees back to the office too soon. Employers still will have a duty under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to make sure they provide a safe workplace, and it will be difficult for an employee, client or customer to prove they were exposed to COVID-19 at the workplace, rather than the grocery store or gas station.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com

I suspect that most companies will slowly introduce employees back to the workplace, rather than bringing them all back all at once. Regardless if an all-clear was given, many employees will be hesitant to return to work and employers need to be prepared for this reluctance.

Employers should still allow employees to work from home when it makes sense, especially if they have compromising health issues or live with somebody that may be compromised.

One major limitation on any reopening will be child care for many American workers. Parents will struggle to go back to work if schools and daycares are not open. All indications suggest that public schools across the country will remain closed for the remainder of the school year making it difficult for employees.

As a result, I suspect that some larger employers may plan to step outside of the box and start providing some form of company-sponsored daycare services, for those employees who cannot find or afford these unexpected daycare expenses.

As many of us prepare to return back to work, employers will need to:

• Screen employees for symptoms and take employees temperatures at the start of each workday.

• Provide face masks or require employees to wear homemade masks or scarfs when working near other employees or customers.

• Assign or hire personnel to continuously disinfect the workplace in those common areas, equipment or touch-points such as break rooms, conference rooms, restrooms, light switches, coffee pots, refrigerators handles, elevator buttons, door handles/knobs, printers, keyboards, postal equipment,
start/stop buttons, stair railing, …etc.

• Require workers to disinfect their own workstations at the start and end of every workday, especially where workstations are shared.

• Limit face to face meetings and rely on video conferencing when possible

Stay Safe & Healthy My Friend!

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One Comment

  1. Candy Lykins says:

    I would like to know if a face shield could be worn instead of a mask.
    I have N95 masks at home as well as disposable ones. I feel as though I am suffocating and my glasses fog up. I get overheated quickly too.
    As a result, I have not ventured out but 2 times since March 30 and masks were not required the first time and I used a scarf the second ( not successfully).
    I would like to try a face shield.

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