The National Safety Council’s (NSC) Safe Actions For Employee Returns task force asked 302 employers with 250-500 employees about their responses to the coronavirus to get a feel for what’s working when it comes to workplace safety during the ongoing pandemic.
Some of the most common actively implemented protocols, according to the survey, included:
- providing hand sanitizer (80%)
- providing face masks, shields or related PPE (75%)
- requiring sanitizing of work surfaces of machines, workstations and tools at the beginning and/or end of a shift (72%)
- increased frequency of deep cleaning of common areas (71%)
- posting signage about preventing COVID-19 transmission (70%)
- allowing remote work for “non-essential” employees (69%)
- requiring employee self-reporting of body temperature and/or symptoms (69%)
- opening communication channels to address employee concerns, questions and ideas (66%), and
- restricting site access for contractors, delivery drivers and other non-employees (61%).
Meanwhile, the least implemented protocols were increasing pay for frontline/at-risk workers and COVID-19 testing.
Although it varies according to operations setting (retail storefront, open/closed industrial, office, etc.), the average amount spent on each safety practice per employee is $266. If your company’s budget can support additional safety protocols that you think will be effective, presenting that figure to leadership may be helpful.
Resources for employers from the NSC to make the workplace safer from COVID-19 are available here.
It’s working, but …
When asked about their numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases, the majority of employers seemed to be doing a good job overall of controlling the spread of the virus. Eighty-eight percent reported 0-5 cases per 100 workers.
The survey also revealed construction companies had the highest rate of confirmed cases, followed by retailers. Education employers and accommodation and food service businesses did the best job of reducing their case rates over time.
The survey’s lead author, Dr. Anthony Washburn of NORC at the University of Chicago, said during an NSC State of Response and Future World of Work Virtual Summit that although employers are doing their part to protect workers with physical distancing, hygiene and PPE protocols, COVID-19 cases are increasing as more employees are phased back to in-person work environments.
“The basic protocols that everyone’s abiding by perhaps are not doing enough to prevent the spread,” he said.
Washburn added that as employers bring more workers back to their sites, there’s a risk of having unidentified and asymptomatic COVID cases. The best way of mitigating it, he said, is with surveillance measures like testing.
“They’re doing temperature screening and symptom scanning, but we know from some of the most recent data on how this virus spreads that … half, if not more than half, of transmission occurs from asymptomatic individuals before they start to develop symptoms,” Washburn said. “The importance of testing and testing frequently … are going to be crucial as we move forward through this pandemic.”
Even though testing is one of the least utilized protocols, it may be time to look into whether providing access to testing can become part of your pandemic safety program.
During the NSC virtual summit, Boston Consulting Group Partner Justin Rodriguez noted that access to testing has improved because more tests are on the market. “Many employers are able to deploy on-site rapid testing, both for employees arriving to work at the start of a shift and also random testing of their workforce … to isolate and identify pockets of coronavirus,” he said.
Rodriguez said that besides COVID testing, measures employers may have to consider rolling out include:
- contact tracing
- addressing mental health issues in the workplace, and
- paying closer attention to COVID at-risk populations in the workplace.
Fellow Boston Consulting Group Partner Dan Kahn added that the new vaccines currently in the emergency use authorization phase will be crucial in fighting the pandemic. Depending on the supply chain, effectiveness of the vaccines and public trust in vaccination, Kahn said the most optimistic timeframe for getting COVID-19 under control is some time in the third quarter of 2021.
What other firms are doing
Discussing the employer response survey during the NSC virtual summit, representatives from three large global companies reported that addressing worker mental health issues through wellness campaigns and employee assistance programs, as well as contact tracing, have been game changers for improving employee safety.
Thermo Fisher Scientific Vice-President of Global Security and Corporate Real Estate David O’Connor noted that contact tracing has become important because transmission of the virus to employees is more likely to come from someone in their household than it is from a co-worker.
The company even developed a contact tracing app.
Employers like Thermo Fisher and Cummins Inc. are on board with providing the vaccine to employees that want to get it. But there will be important issues to consider, said Cummins’ executive director of corporate health, safety and environment Michelle Garner-Janna. Among them:
- Will safety protocols for PPE and physical distancing have to be changed?
- Will who does or doesn’t get vaccinated impact who’s allowed on site?
- How will having people who have and haven’t been vaccinated affect certain work areas?
- How can it be ensured employees get both necessary doses without compromising their privacy?