The idea of work in the age of COVID-19 brings some disparate images to mind.
Office workers holed up at home, juggling teleconference calls and child care. Health care workers on the front lines, serving long, dangerous hours with insufficient protective gear.
But what about everybody else?
In Ohio at least, there are quite a few businesses that fall under the "essential" category that exempts them from the stay-at-home part of the stay-at-home order. That includes everyone from manufacturers to construction crews to grocery store clerks. What should those employers be doing to keep their employees safe?
Manufacturers are one category of companies largely considered essential in Ohio. There are a number of steps companies can take to protect the employees in their plants.
One big thing manufacturers can do to encourage social distancing is to split their shifts, from one into two or three, said Ethan Karp, president and CEO of Magnet, the manufacturing advocacy and growth network. Not only does that decrease the number of employees onsite at any given time, it isolates crews from one another.
Overall, companies should look at their workstations and find ways to spread employees out. This may be less efficient, but now is not the time for efficiency. That's a tough mental switch for manufacturers.
"For a manufacturer who has spent all this time being lean and efficient, this is definitely going against the grain, definitely deconstructing some of the steps they've taken for efficiency for safety," Karp said.
Some manufacturers are keeping employees to particular parts of a plant, isolating workers from others. They're even taking extra steps to isolate the most essential employees, whose duties would be difficult to fill if they fell ill, such as maintenance personnel.
There are plenty of other options for trying to reduce exposure among employees. Some manufacturers are looking to add clear shields between workers for additional protection, Karp said. Others are removing doors or keeping them open and switching to no-touch or lidless trash cans to reduce common touchpoints.
If employees have to work onsite, that doesn't mean they have to work together. Even meetings among employees in the same building can be held using teleconference tools to minimize gatherings.
"Don't act business as usual," Karp advised.
These measures are important for employees' safety and morale, Karp noted, but they also make smart business sense. Companies face shutdowns due to illness, of course, but also due to health inspections if they aren't taking proper precautions.
Ultimately, companies need a plan for how they'll respond if an employee or an employee's family member gets ill. Even if this virus goes away soon, Karp said, he thinks companies should have a virus protection plan in place for the future. Having a standardized plan will make the shift easier if it's necessary again, he noted.
Here are some more tips for employers, based on information from the Ohio Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Employers need to make sure employees who are feeling sick stay home. And they need to stay there for a while. They can return when they meet these three guidelines: They've been fever- and symptom-free for at least 72 hours; symptoms have improved for at least 72 hours; and it has been at least seven days since their symptoms began. Those fever- and symptom-free days should be without the use of medication.
- That means employers should have flexible, nonpunitive sick leave policies in place. Employees might have more need than ever to use it to care for themselves or family members.
- If a company uses temp employees, managers should talk to those staffing companies about the above sick-leave policies and make sure they are aligned.
- Putting more physical space—at least 6 feet—between employees is recommended. That includes areas like break rooms. Employers should take special consideration of employees who could be higher risk, such as older adults or those with chronic medical conditions.
- Avoid having employees use the same equipment, desk or phones. If that's not possible, clean and disinfect them before and after each use.
- In general, step up in terms of cleaning workplaces. Make disposable wipes available near commonly used surfaces so employees can clean them before each use, and pay special attention when cleaning high-touch areas like door handles and railings.
- Make sure there is adequate soap and water and hand sanitizer available for employees.
- Place reminders of safe social distancing tips, like posters, in areas employees are likely to see.
And remember: These tips are for employers where everyone is assumed to be well. If an employee is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, there are additional cleaning and disinfecting recommendations available from the CDC.