Navigating the COVID-19 Safety Marathon
As we head into the second half of the year and more coronavirus vaccines get rolled out, it feels like we are reaching the last leg in our sprint toward normalcy. But a physician I recently spoke with cautioned that we will be making adjustments for COVID-19 for the next three to five years. That means the efforts to prevent an outbreak in the workplace are going to be more of a marathon than a sprint. Fortunately, unlike a 26.2-mile marathon race, navigating the path to normalcy should get easier over time.
Before reviewing updated strategies to protect workers in 2021 and beyond, it’s helpful to forecast how we can expect the impact of COVID-19 to shift over the coming months and years. The big race in 2021 and 2022 will be for countries to vaccinate as many people as possible to reach herd immunity and reduce opportunities for the virus to further mutate into more dangerous variations.
For the next quarter, vaccinated workers will be a relatively small minority in most industry sectors, meaning we will need to maintain strict measures of prevention. If vaccinations continue as projected, all adults who want a vaccine should be able to get one by late summer this year. So by late 2021, companies may be able to begin requiring vaccinations as a condition of working onsite.
However, COVID-19 vaccine testing in children just began recently, so broad access to this group will only begin in late 2021 or early 2022, which means true herd immunity is unlikely before next year. Then for the following one to three years, it’s highly likely that everyone will need booster vaccines to protect against certain coronavirus variants.
Importantly, vaccinated people may not get sick, themselves, but they may be able to infect those who have not received the vaccine. There just isn’t enough research yet to prove otherwise. This consideration will impact nearly every organization until we reach herd immunity since we need to protect not only employees but also their families. Now, let’s look at four strategies for maximizing this protection.
Double Down on Education
Already, one of the greatest challenges organizations face today is coronavirus fatigue as people tire of taking safety precautions. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen how that fatigue has led to surges in COVID-19 infections worldwide, particularly with the emergence of newer, more virulent variants.
If they haven’t done so already, organizations need to follow the lead of high-risk industries, such as construction, oil and gas, and other utilities. Safety managers in these sectors understand that long-term exposure to any potential risk leads to complacency, and they have seen how regular safety talks can decrease injuries by roughly 80%.
The key is that regular training on COVID-19 prevention, whether weekly or monthly, needs to include new information to ensure that employees don’t “tune out.” For example, a topic may cover recent guidance on the benefits of double-masking or why company break rooms have become a leading source of viral spread.
As more employees get vaccinated, it will also be important to provide training on why these workers still need to adhere to the same safety practices as others. For example, one teacher recently expressed excitement about getting the vaccine in order to teach a class without wearing a mask — not realizing a mask would still be required to protect unvaccinated students and their families. That misconception is one human resource (HR) and safety managers across a range of organizations are likely to face among employees.
Expand Prevention Tactics
Last year, organizations focused on mitigating the impact of COVID-19, but mitigation is too little too late. All too many companies learned that lesson first hand after experiencing the crippling effects of a coronavirus outbreak — including costly facility closures and lost productivity from employees experiencing “brain fog,” a common symptom of the virus. One of my advisors in the industry had COVID-19 for five weeks and said it was hard for him to remember conversations from that time. Imagine being in that state and trying to make decisions about the business or faulty equipment.
In 2021, the focus needs to be on coronavirus prevention. Often measures are focused on the physical worksite with employees wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and working at reconfigured, socially distanced stations. Some industrial businesses are taking a cue from biotechnology firms and setting up color-coded work zones to minimize interaction between different teams.
Ideally, prevention starts before an employee ever enters the workplace. At many offices and facilities, it’s already common to see concierges or greeters check each worker’s temperature and ask a brief set of questions before allowing that person to enter the building.
More recently, forward-thinking companies are asking employees to self-report their COVID-19 risk remotely via their mobile phones. If they get an “OK” response, they can go to the worksite and use their mobile phones to show greeters they have approval to enter. If they get a warning indicator of potential COVID-19 risk, they have to wait for a manager or supervisor to advise them on the appropriate course of action for protecting their colleagues’ health, perhaps by working from home or onsite but in isolation and with additional PPE. This approach significantly cuts the chances of contagious employees coming into contact with others.
Create a Culture of Collaboration
Top-down corporate mandates have only a limited influence on employees. Instead, if they haven’t done so already, HR and safety managers need to enlist employees as collaborators in adopting COVID-19 safety measures that will protect themselves and their families.
One approach is the employee self-assessment discussed in the section above. Another is to set up a COVID-19 safety committee that brings together employees from all levels and job descriptions in a respectful environment. This ensures that prevention and mitigation policies and processes reflect the needs and concerns of team members across the organization.
At the same time, collaboration only works when organizations establish a sense of trust. Employees who fear lost wages may not report symptoms or potential contact in their self-assessments. Worse, they may decide to come to work because their symptoms are relatively mild — setting the stage for a super-spreader outbreak. Businesses can mitigate fears and create psychological safety with policies that offer paid leave for employees who need to quarantine and can’t work from home.
Layer Strategies for Maximum Protection
No single strategy is likely to be sufficient. So, organizations will want to adopt a Swiss cheese approach. The idea here is to layer different strategies to reduce risk to a tolerable level. For example, implementing four layers — such as social distancing, wearing PPE, monitoring employees’ self-assessments, and providing workforce training — could potentially reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak by a factor of 10,000x.
By combining prevention strategies, and being prepared to modify them as conditions change, companies will be well equipped to successfully navigate the coronavirus marathon in protecting their business, employees, and their families.