5 Considerations to Return to Work Safely during COVID

May 5, 2021

What is the state of US Vaccination and COVID-19?

Return to Work during COVID-19

The traditional work life has already been fundamentally changed with businesses going remote or shutting down HQ spaces. However, many businesses such as manufacturers, schools, hospitals, etc still require going to the office to perform their daily duties. And some employees may perform better with an in-person team. While vaccination rates in the US are increasing with around 106M people or 32.3% of the population vaccinated, COVID-19 is still a serious risk with a high likelihood of becoming endemic according to a Nature poll of over 100 immunologists, infectious-disease researchers and virologists. This means, like the seasonal cold and flu, COVID-19 will continue to circulate in pockets of global population for years to come. Let's take a look at some new "normal" protocols as business return to work.

How to Return to Work Safely

1. Continue Wearing Face Masks (Properly)

How to wear a face mask properly

While some states like Texas and Florida are relaxing their mask policies many businesses are enforcing mask wearing. According to a study by the CDC, wearing masks can lower a person's infection risk by 70%. And we should add, if worn correctly: as shown by John's Hopkins. Wearing masks not only protects individuals wearing them but other high risk population around them. In addition, swapping out for new masks are important as wearing the same mask every day without changing or washing can lower it's effectiveness. Double masking has also shown increased effectiveness where scientists from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published a study stating that the "best coverage came from wearing a neck gaiter or a bandana over a surgical mask". However, the results were not the same when performed the other way with wearing a surgical mask over a neck gaiter. This conclusion would indicate that the effectiveness of double masking came down to the fit of the masks with the snugger the fit, the more effective at preventing particles from getting in or out.

2. Mandatory Screening

Mandatory COVID Health Screening

In many states, either a combination of temperature and symptom health screenings are required by employers prior to allowing employees back to the workplace. You can view what your state requires with a handy write up from the Olgetree group. Many clients we speak with still rely on operations or HR to perform manual screenings for employees which in small settings (under 10 employees) is a cost effective solution. However, as a workplace increases to hundreds of employees, manual screening becomes an inefficient way to check in 100 employees within a few minutes. In a time study we performed with a 24 hour location at a regional grocery chain that had around 70 employees, a store leader was required to ask employees a series health symptom-related questions and take their temperature prior to starting their shift. Approximately every 10-20 minutes a new employee would come check into their shift which means in a 24 hour period and it would take a supervisor around 2-3 minutes to stop what their doing, run downstairs to the floor, check a person in, check a clipboard, and then run back up to their desk. This meant that in a 24 hour period, this location spent over 2 hours worth of checking employees in with supervisors stopping their workflow every 10-20 minutes. However with a solution like an automated check in screening for both health surveys and contactless temperature checks with VIT's Health Screening App, employees can check in themselves and supervisors receive real-time notifications if someone fails screenings. You can learn more about how to set up a health screening system with our blog here: COVID Employee App for Faster and More Accurate Screening.

3. Vaccination Documentation

Vaccination Documentation

There are a variety of reasons why employers may want to track vaccine documentation for contact tracing purposes or others. Employers are permitted to ask employees if they have been vaccinated however employers should be cautious with digging any deeper into other health related questions as recommended by Wilson Sonsini. An example is management should NOT ask why an employee was instructed by their health provider against receiving the vaccine. In addition, management should NOT ask questions regarding an employee's underlying health conditions. If an employer wishes to document the vaccination, management should remind employees to NOT provide documentation that contains any personal medical information as that documentation must be stored into a HIPAA compliant database or record keeping system if it is electronic.

The current vaccines authorized in the US come in single doses (J&J) or two doses, given around 3-4 weeks apart (Pfizer and Moderna). For companies that have 50+ employees, this can easily become an administrative burden. The easiest way for documentation is creating a spread sheet with the columns
Date | First Name | Last Name | Vaccine Date (1st) | Vaccine Date (2nd if applicable)

Likewise for the point above with health screenings, if management wishes to not have to maintain spreadsheets for documentation, they can prompt employees with a software management system to enter when they had a vaccine and it can be kept with the same records as temperature and symptom screenings.

4. Updated Social Distancing & Ventilation

Social Distancing

With new research coming out of MIT, the claim of 6 feet as a barrier to contracting COVID-19 indoors has come into question. Without the use of mask and proper ventilation, "one is no safer from airborne pathogens at 60 feet than 6 feet". Martin Bazant, one of the MIT professors on the paper, states that opening windows or installing new fans indoors to keep air moving may be just as effective or more effective than spending large amounts of money on new filtration systems. In the paper, Bazant also mentions that time is an important factor for preventing spread where having 20 people gathered inside for one minute is likely fine but the risk increase over the course of a few hours. While having clear markers for 6 feet distance apart is necessary, employers should also consider the likelihood of close gatherings of over 15 minutes as well as ensuring proper mask wearing and ventilation to reduce risk of transmission.

5. Sanitation Protocols

Sanitation Protocol

Management should identify hot spots in their workplace where high touch areas occur such as door handles, tablets, kiosks, countertops, etc. Some companies may opt to go with a 3rd party to help clean and track these occurrences or manage it internally. Ensure to dispose of all cleaning materials and PPE in compliance with OSHA standards to prevent further spread. We recommend having disposable disinfectant wipes at stations so employees can also wipe down regularly handled items. In the case of VIT's ergonomic wearable that helps employers prevent soft tissue injuries and provide pain mitigation, we provide and recommend employers have a case of wipes and paper towels to wipe down devices before each use and beginning of each new use.

And if you're looking for more tips, check our other blog post: 5 Ways to Reduce COVID-19 Infection Rates in Your Workplace.

VIT helps provide an automated way to track your health screenings and can reduce the time your management spends documenting and tracking COVID-related workplace risks. If your business is looking for an affordable way to perform health screenings as you return to work book a time below to learn more.

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