Reopening your business? Take a tried, tested approach
Consider hazards of new workplace reality, take reasonable precautions
It has been two months since COVID-19 shut a large part of the world economy down. Hopefully, the worst of it is behind us and businesses will gradually be allowed to start opening up again.
Assuming that is what happens, what should employers be doing from an occupational health and safety perspective to ensure that their workers are protected from COVID-19?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is straightforward.
Two things need be remembered. First, employers — as always — need to take all reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of their workers.
Second, employers can do that by following the tried and tested method of identifying those hazards that their workers may face, and by implementing policies and procedures that address those hazards.
Identifying COVID-19 hazards
We know that COVID-19 is a highly communicable virus that spreads easily and quickly through people’s interactions both with one another and with objects.
As such, the first question that employers should be asking is: What facets of my operation create opportunities for the virus to spread?
In answering that question, employers should start by identifying all of the instances in which their workers could come into contact with others without the protection of physical distancing.
In an office environment, that would involve looking at how workspaces are laid out. In industrial facilities, it may also include assessing the layout of workstations and storage arrangements. Finally, in all work environments, employers should be considering how their workers interact with one another in common areas such as breakrooms, boardrooms and washroom facilities, as well as how workers arrive at and leave the workplace.
Employers should also be considering what opportunities workers may have to come into contact with non-workers — such as delivery people, customers and suppliers. These interactions could also expose workers to the virus and pose hazards that need to be addressed.
Businesses should also be concerned with their workers’ interactions with objects.
The primary concern will likely always be the workplace itself, as workers in an office or facility will inevitably end up touching the walls, fixtures and furniture.
Given that there is evidence that the virus can survive on surfaces such as cardboard and packaging, things that are being brought into the office and handled — such as supplies, deliveries, and even money — should also be considered as a potential hazard.
To sum up, the key to identifying COVID-19-related hazards in businesses lies in considering when and how workers may be coming into contact with people and things.
At the end of the day, it is in, and on these touchpoints that the COVID-19 hazard resides.
Implementing policy, procedure
Once a business has identified what the hazards to its workers are, the next step involves creating and implementing policies and procedures that address those hazards effectively.
This will involve ensuring that physical distancing is maintained so that interpersonal transmission of the virus is prevented. At the same time, it will also involve instituting hygienic controls so that the virus is removed from commonly accessible surfaces.
Inevitably, as a first step, businesses will have to ensure that workspaces are appropriately physically distanced, that washing facilities are available and properly stocked with soap and sanitizer, that hygienic cleaning and sanitizing protocols have been put in place for the workplace itself, and that workers are given access to — and have been required to use — personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks, as may be appropriate.
However, these are only the first steps. Others will also have to be considered.
For example, employers may need to consider staggering workers’ shifts, start and finish times — and even breaks — so that the opportunities that workers have to congregate are limited.
Similar controls may have to be considered for businesses’ shipping and receiving departments, so that workers do not have to contend with multiple non-workers congregating at any one time in the workplace.
As well, actual facility changes may have to be considered.
For example, where workers have to interact with the public (such as cashier stations), plastic separation shields may be needed to prevent direct contact. Physical distancing markers on floors or walls may also be appropriate in areas where workers and or the public interact and or congregate.
Similarly, where workplaces have high areas of traffic (such as warehouses or distribution centres), installing one-way traffic lanes or paths may help to limit the opportunities for direct contact and interaction amongst workers.
Finally, workplaces that receive supplies and deliveries should also consider implementing procedures for the sanitization or segregation of these deliveries, as well as procedures for interactions with the people who deliver the packages.
Taking reasonable precautions
It is important to remember that all of the points that are set out above are simply examples. The policies and procedures that any given business may want to consider will inevitably vary depending on the nature of the operations being undertaken.
Given that, what businesses should be keeping in mind is that the essence of their obligation is to take all reasonable precautions to protect their workers, and that the most effective way to do that when dealing with COVID-19 is to identify from where the risks to workers are coming, and how those risks can be addressed most effectively.
If businesses do that, and take guidance from public-health authorities, as well as the general industry standards that have been and are being implemented, they will likely have gone a long way, if not all the way, toward protecting their workers from the risks posed by COVID-19.
David Reiter is a partner with Aird and Berlis in Toronto.