A safety professional with 12 years of experience at pandemic planning at state and federal worksites shared her insight regarding the COVID-19 pandemic during a recent American Society of Safety Professionals Q&A session.
Deb Roy, a safety professional for more than 35 years and author of Preparing for a Pandemic: Lessons From H1N1, discussed a variety of topics regarding COVID-19 during the question-and-answer webinar.
How serious of a threat is COVID-19 for safety professionals?
The challenge with COVID-19 is that it spreads so efficiently, Roy said, which means more than 80% of those infected have mild symptoms and may still be out in the community exposing others to the disease.
So the real problem with COVID-19 is we have people who may actually be able to expose others and not realize they’re sick.
The other challenge is it’s a new virus, so there’s no known treatment or vaccine for it right now, and even though vaccines are being worked on they could take 12 to 18 months before becoming available to the public.
What proactive steps can be taken for risk assessment of COVID-19?
With risk assessment, safety professionals can assess what the risks are to our populations and provide that guidance to our employers, Roy said.
Risk assessment will also help in deciding what social distancing strategies should be used. For example, if you have telework capabilities you can develop a checklist for working safely at home.
Another thing to keep in mind is leadership doesn’t always understand what you have to do to get the level of risk across to employees, while safety professionals understand the broader risk communication strategy and how best to get that across to everyone.
That requires focusing on scientific, factual information and providing it in a lot of different ways so people can digest it appropriately for themselves.
Should employees use N95 respirators?
Remember this is a droplet disease, Roy replied. But with a droplet disease, you really need to think about what the risks are for a particular operation.
For warehouses, call centers and more traditional industries, think about what the risk is. Generally, if someone is coughing, a droplet can move from 6 to 10 feet at the maximum with 6 feet being typical.
Droplets are large enough that they drop onto surfaces, so the key is hygiene and cleaning of surfaces will address that problem while social distancing will take care of the rest.
Using masks in a large space like a warehouse doesn’t seem appropriate from the level of risk presented.
It’s very easy in an uncertain situation like this to just go to protecting the worker at the individual level, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, nor is it the right approach since N95 masks are in short supply and are really needed for healthcare workers.
Make sure workstations are clean and be sure to space people out. Stagger shifts and lunch breaks so you don’t have a lot of people congregating in one area all at the same time.