On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic. Two days later, the United States issued a National Emergency and by March 22nd nearly half of all Americans found themselves under stay-at-home orders. To date, there have been over 2.5 million confirmed cases of COVID 19 with roughly 175,000 deaths and 678,00 recoveries, and numbers changing daily. Whether we want to admit it or not, the world has been forever disrupted by something so tiny it’s practically invisible. We will soon utter the phrase “post-COVID world.”
The novel coronavirus has brought safety to the forefront. Now, more than ever, PPE (personal protective equipment) is a common acronym, the lack of hand-washing is anathema, and concern for one’s health and safety is the priority. Unfortunately, it took something as disruptive as a global pandemic to get us thinking about safety in such an obvious way, including the workplace. Even though much of the workforce has suffered forced business closures and furloughs, many industries are considered essential to keep life functioning on some basic level. In addition to medical, agriculture/food, and cargo industries, many distributors fall into this essential category. So what safety and risk management lessons can we learn from COVID 19 that should be applied and maintained in the workplace?
Up Your PPE Game
PPE has always been required in the workplace when hazards exist. Common examples include hi-vis safety vests or clothing to improve visibility. Steel-toe shoes for foot protection. Gloves and safety glasses to avoid lacerations or eye injury. Fall protection for employees working at heights greater than 4 feet (order pickers). If you don’t currently have PPE for the various hazards present in your unique workplace then you are not compliant with existing regulations and should procure such PPE ASAP. But what lessons can we learn from COVID 19 and apply to PPE?
First, it is a good idea to equip each employee with their own, personal protective equipment. Given that viruses, not just COVID 19, can linger on surfaces and equipment, individual PPE can help prevent the spread of contaminants. This has application during any time of the year when an employee may be sick but unaware or asymptomatic. Beyond illness, general personal hygiene is another benefit to individually assigned PPE. Who wants to share a sweat-laden vest or fall harness? Gross.
Second, PPE should be sanitized and inspected. Not only will this help prevent the spread of illness but it will ensure PPE is maintained in good working condition and any damaged PPE is removed from service. In fact, PPE inspection is already required per existing workplace safety regulations. Finally, if your workplace does not already have a bloodborne pathogen response kit then get one. Bloodborne pathogens are an ever-present threat to the workplace and should be included in Emergency Response planning and procedures. In addition, if your workplace stores any form of hazardous material, necessary PPE for the handling and clean up of potential spills should be present in the workplace. This may include ventilators and protective, chemical safety clothing.
Update Your Emergency Action Plan
Any workplace with 10 or more employees must have a written Emergency Action Plan. This plan must outline procedures for responding to and mitigating workplace emergencies. Additionally, the plan must be reviewed with employees at least annually and be updated to reflect changes in the workplace that may affect emergency response procedures. Your existing Emergency Action Plan should address environmental hazards - whether they be internal, due to bloodborne pathogens or hazardous materials, or external, due to HAZMAT situations that may require sheltering-in-place due to biological, radiological, or chemical threats.
The COVID 19 pandemic is an example of one such emergency scenario that may affect the workplace. An example of a general question that should be addressed is, “What is the workplace protocol to prevent the spread of infectious disease? For some companies, including Walmart, the protocol includes testing employee temperatures and providing disposable PPE like face masks and gloves. Alternatively, “What are the workplace protocols if an employee tests positive for an infectious disease?” Do you have the ability to track possible transmission to others or perform decontamination procedures? These questions and scenarios may seem extreme but they are now real. Consider the Ebola outbreak of 2014. The US had only 11 cases and 1 death but it spurred panic buying, misinformation, and fears. By comparison, the current pandemic is far worse. If workplaces did not take contagious pathogens seriously after 2014, they certainly should now.
Get Real with Risk Management
Too often, risk management discussions are veiled in hypotheticals. In a post-COVID world, the hypothetical is actual and risk management investments are appropriate and responsible. Workplaces need to account for potential viruses, or other extreme disruptions, and make reasonable, scaled preparations for mitigation and response strategies. This includes necessary PPE but it should also include investing in business infrastructure to keep operations as functional as possible in times of distress. Can essential employees work remotely? Can technology integration keep business going? Is there an opportunity for greater automation? Can we practice so that we’re prepared when times get tough? It is important to understand that the ancillary qualities of workplace safety and risk management may quickly turn essential. Are you prepared?
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