With 150 million Americans now fully vaccinated and COVID-19 deaths dropping across the US, many people who spent much of the last year working remotely are now headed back to the workplace. However, in the wake of a worldwide medical crisis, it’s clear that those returning to the office will likely not be going back to business as usual.
Many of the protective measures companies implemented during the pandemic will become a part of the new normal, and there are more changes to come as businesses increase their focus on health and safety in the workplace. The pandemic served as a catalyst for advancements and innovations that will continue to shape the way we work in the future.
As we collectively make the transition back to an in-person working environment, it’s important that employers are doing all they can to ensure worker safety, employees are following health and safety protocols to protect themselves and their families, and healthcare workers are especially vigilant. While the rates of COVID-19 are dropping, new highly contagious variants, the possibility of other mutations, and a significant number of unvaccinated people mean we may not be out of the woods yet.
Is your business prepared to safely accommodate workers? Will your employees feel confident and reassured that their safety is prioritized? Are we ready to return to work?
We’ve compiled these tips for employers, employees and our allied healthcare partners from experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and other reputable sources to ensure the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
Ways that employers can create a safe and healthy workspace
Employers of all kinds need to put a comprehensive health and safety plan in place and effectively communicate that plan to employees so that everyone is working towards the same goals. OSHA’s Guidance on Returning to Work suggests businesses implement practices that address the following principles:
- Perform a hazard assessment – Assess all job functions performed by employees and determine which tasks are at higher risk of exposure, either through interactions with the public or fellow employees. Once you’ve assessed the areas of highest risk, you can prioritize ways to address concerns in those areas.
- Facilitate proper hygiene – Provide hand sanitizing stations, instructions and supplies for proper handwashing, and signage reminding employees and guests to frequently wash their hands. Additionally, identify high traffic or communal areas in your facility and ensure that they are frequently being properly cleaned and disinfected.
- Enable social distancing – Limit the number of employees/customers who can be in a certain space at one time. Use floor stickers, directional arrows and other signage to remind people to stay 6-feet apart, especially in areas that are prone to congestion.
- Screen, identify, and isolate sick employees – Ask employees to self-monitor for common COVID-19 symptoms and to stay home if they are ill. You may also perform temperature checks prior to allowing employees to enter the facility. Set up a policy on how to respond if an employee becomes ill at work, including isolating the affected employee (if they can’t immediately go home), cleaning and disinfecting the area where that person was working, and notifying fellow employees/contact tracing to warn co-workers of possible exposure.
- Provide policy regarding exposure – Employees that may have been exposed to the virus should have a specified time of self-quarantine and self-monitoring (according to CDC guidelines) before being cleared to return to work.
- Leverage engineered and administrative controls – Engineered controls that can be used in the workplace include plexiglass barriers to separate workers, enhanced ventilation systems, infrared/UV air cleaners, automated temperature check kiosks, and contact-less technology (such as touchless faucets, automated doors, and elevators that scan an ID badge to take you to the appropriate floor). Administrative controls include staggering work shifts, replacing in-person meetings with video calls, and ensuring workers wear appropriate PPE as necessary.
- Enact workplace flexibilities – Evaluate your existing policies and determine if you can implement remote or hybrid work options for certain roles, alternate schedules to reduce the number of workers in the facility at the same time, and explore your sick leave policy to be sure it does not punish or discourage sick or exposed employees from staying home as needed.
- Train employees – Once your business has established its health and safety plan, it’s important to be sure your employees fully understand how COVID-19 is spread, what your policies are, why they were established, and how they protect your employees from exposure. Ideally, your health and safety protocols should make your employees feel safe and reduce any fears about returning to work.
- Prohibit retaliation – Make sure that employees understand their right to work in a safe and healthy environment, and that they feel comfortable raising health and safety concerns without fear of reprisal from supervisors, managers, or fellow employees.
While this is not an exhaustive list of everything employers could do to promote a safe work environment and needs may vary according to industry, using these tips as a guide will go a long way towards creating safer workspaces and reassuring employees as they come back to work.
How workers can protect themselves and feel safe when returning to work
Many Americans remain unvaccinated — some by choice and others by a lack of opportunity. There are workplaces that require employees to be vaccinated, and some employers are helping or incentivizing people to get their shot(s). If you don’t have a medical reason preventing you from getting vaccinated, vaccination remains the most effective way you can protect yourself from contracting COVID-19.
If you’re vaccinated, it is still important to follow safety protocols at work. While the likelihood of you actually becoming sick or dying from the virus is very low, it is still unknown as to whether you might be able to transmit the disease to others. And obviously, people who are unvaccinated or are immune-suppressed are still at risk. To stay safe when you return to an in-person work environment, experts recommend the following:
- Learn about any safety protocols your employer has implemented. Find out what measures your employer has taken to help ensure your safety (hopefully, some of those listed above) and follow those procedures. Also continue to follow the common-sense rules of the pandemic including hand washing, social distancing, and wearing a mask (if required or you choose to).
- Avoid communal spaces. Consider packing your lunch and eating outside instead of gathering with others in the break room or cafeteria. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, eliminate the car pool, and try to limit meeting attendance to only those participants that must be there.
- Clean and sanitize your workspace. You may want to keep your own cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer at your desk so you can keep your space clean. If you’re in an open office environment, move your desk at least 6-feet away from your neighbor, or see if management will allow you to spread out or stagger shifts so everyone isn’t close together.
- Ask your coworkers for help. Let your coworkers know about your concerns so you can all work as a team to remind each other about keeping your distance, not shaking hands, etc.
- Speak to your employer about any concerns. Lastly, if you feel your employer is not doing enough to ensure your safety, or you see issues where protocol is not being followed, don’t hesitate to politely offer suggestions or raise concerns for everyone’s benefit.
How the future of work is changing – especially in healthcare
At Ultimate Medical Academy, we help staff healthcare organizations across the nation with our Allied Health graduates, and we understand how the pandemic has impacted the way medical facilities work now and in the future.
We’ve already seen a rise in telehealth. While telehealth services will never replace all in-person appointments, things like initial assessments, follow-up visits, medication management, mental health assessments and more can be performed safely and efficiently through a digital health platform. Patients seem to appreciate the speed, ease and convenience of being able to see their doctor without leaving the house, so this trend is likely to continue to grow.
Other patient experiences, like virtual check-ins, online questionnaires, and diagnostic tools will build on new technologies, and real-time electronic medical records will continue to advance, as well as infrastructure that allows for the sharing of those records between hospital systems.
At UMA, we’re embracing the new normal by adopting flexible work arrangements, allowing even more of our employees to enjoy full or part-time remote work, hybrid work, compressed work weeks and other options to help ensure safety.
Additionally, we’ve implemented a host of new technologies in our work facilities, such as new air filtration and sterilization systems, electrostatic ionized cleaning for surface areas, plexiglass barriers, temperature screening stations, hands-free plumbing fixtures and door openers and much more.
We hope that we can help our Allied Health Partners by continuing to provide helpful resources, in addition to our no-cost staffing services, so your business can continue to grow and thrive — even in challenging times.