The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the greatest challenges that societies and companies have faced today. Working together to stop the spread of this disease is a priority, as well as offering a safe and healthy work environment for workers returning to their usual work areas.
In previous articles we mentioned the definition of biological agents and the possible occupational diseases that they can cause. COVID-19 is a virus-like biological agent that is classified in group 4, and more dangerous, of the classification of the European Agency for Occupational Safety and Health (EU-OSHA).
In workplaces where workers may be affected by a virus, companies need to carry out a workplace risk assessment and establish appropriate measures.
EU-OSHA states that when physical distancing and quarantine measures record a sufficient reduction in COVID-19 transmission rates, local governments authorize the gradual resumption of work activities.
Right now, occupational safety and health tools offer practical support for returning to the workplace. By taking preventative measures we could achieve a safe and healthy return to work, and, they will contribute to suppress the transmission of COVID-19.
As in normal working conditions, the identification and assessment of risks in physical and psychosocial work environments is the starting point for managing occupational safety and health (OSH) under measures COVID-19.
EU-OSHA explains that controls are required to review their risk assessment when there is a change in the work process and to consider all risks, including those affecting mental health. When reviewing the risk assessment, attention should be paid to any abnormalities or situations causing problems and how this can help the organization to be more resilient in the long term.
To begin the assessment, obtain updated information from the authorities on the prevalence of COVID-19 in your area. Once the risk assessment is updated, the next step is to make an action plan with the specific measures.
MINIMIZING EXPOSURE TO COVID-19 AT WORK
EU-OSHA indicates that implementing safe work practices to limit exposure to COVID-19 at work requires first evaluating the risks and then implementing the hierarchy of controls. This means establishing control measures to eliminate the risk first and, if this is not possible, minimize worker exposure.
Below are the EU-OSHA recommendations on control measures, however, not all of them will be applicable to all workplaces or jobs due to their nature.
- Start with collective measures and if necessary, supplement them with individual measures, such as personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Carry out only essential work for the time being it may be possible to postpone some work to when the risk is lower. If possible, deliver services remotely (phone or video) instead of in person. Ensure that only workers who are essential to the job are present at the workplace and minimize the presence of third parties.
- Reduce, as far as possible, physical contact between workers (e.g. during meetings or during breaks). Isolate workers who can carry out their tasks alone safely and who do not require specialized equipment or machinery that cannot be moved. For example, whenever possible, arrange for them to work alone in a spare office, staff room, or meeting room. If possible, ask vulnerable workers to work from home (older people and those with chronic conditions (including hypertension, lung or heart problems, diabetes, or who are undergoing cancer treatment or some other immunosuppression) and pregnant workers. Workers with close family members who are at high risk may also need to telework.
- Eliminate, and if not possible limit, physical interaction with and between customers. For example, through online or phone orders, contactless delivery or managed entry (while also avoiding crowding outside), and physical distancing both inside and outside the premises.
- When delivering goods, do so through pick-up or delivery outside the premises. Advise drivers on good hygiene in the cab and provide them with appropriate sanitation gel and wipes. Delivery workers must be allowed to use facilities such as toilets, cafeterias, changing rooms and showers, albeit with the appropriate precautions (such as allowing only one user at a time and regular cleaning).
- Place an impervious barrier between workers, especially if they are not able to keep a two-meter distance from each other. Barriers can be purpose-made or improvised using items such as plastic sheeting, partitions, mobile drawers, or storage units. Things that are not solid or that have gaps, like pot plants or trolleys, or that create a new risk, such as from tripping or falling objects are to be avoided. If a barrier cannot be used, additional space between workers should be created by, for example, ensuring they have at least two empty desks either side of them.
- If close contact is unavoidable, keep it to less than 15 minutes. Reduce contact between different parts of your business at the start and end of shifts. Arrange the timing of meal breaks to reduce the number of people sharing a cafeteria, staff room, or kitchen. Ensure there is only one worker at a time in bathrooms and changing rooms. Place a sign on the main door indicating when one of the toilets is in use to ensure that only one person at a time enters. Organize shifts to take account of cleaning and sanitation tasks.
- Supply soap and water or appropriate hand sanitizer at convenient places and advise workers to wash their hands frequently. Clean your premises frequently, especially counters, door handles, tools and other surfaces that people touch often and provide good ventilation if possible.
- Avoid excessive workload on cleaning staff by taking appropriate measures, such as assigning additional staff to the tasks and asking workers to leave their workspace tidy. Provide workers with tissues and waste bins lined with a plastic bag so that they can be emptied without contacting the contents.
- If you have identified a risk of infection despite having applied all feasible safety measures, then provide all necessary PPE. It is important to train workers in correct use of PPE, ensuring that they follow the guidance available on use of facemasks and gloves.
- Place posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the entrance to the workplace and in other areas where they will be seen.
- Facilitate workers’ use of individual rather than collective transport, for example by making available car parking or a place for storing bicycles securely, and encouraging workers to walk to work, if possible.
- Put in place policies on flexible leave and remote working to limit presence at the workplace, when needed.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION FROM EU-OSHA
You can get updated information on the website of the European Agency for Occupational Safety and Health (EU-OSHA). We recommend visiting the following links to stay informed:
Source: European Agency for Occupational Safety and Health (EU-OSHA)