COVID-19: CDC Guidelines and Best Practices for Reopening Workplaces
In May 2020, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines for employers to use when reopening offices and worksites during the coronavirus pandemic. Among these best practices are ways to mitigate and monitor the virus’s spread—and, importantly, how to keep employees safe in the workplace.
How Does the Virus Spread?
A new report from The Wall Street Journal from June 16, 2020, indicates a clearer picture of how we understand the spread of COVID-19. The growing consensus about how people are infected is that "it's not common to contract COVID-19 from a contaminated surface" and that "instead, the major culprit is close-up, person-to-person interactions for extended periods."
The article lists crowded events, poorly ventilated areas, and places where people may be talking loudly as prime examples of situations where the virus may spread more easily. Of course, this leaves open the question of reopening workplaces.
The story also mentions that the CDC's workplace guidelines have yet to specifically address the spread of small particle spread within an office or workplace. In the meantime, it's generally recommended to prevent your employees from interacting face-to-face and in enclosed spaces for extended periods of time, and to follow the other CDC safety measures that businesses should take as they begin to reopen to workers and the public.
Employers with Workers at High Risk
As much of the country begins to reopen, necessary precautions need to be implemented to keep workers safe during the pandemic. Notably, some people are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 than others. These individuals include:
- People over the age of 65.
- Individuals with underlying medical conditions such as chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and more.
The new CDC guidelines recommend that people at higher risk for severe illness should be encouraged to self-identify as such, and also that “employers should avoid making unnecessary medical inquiries” so that employees can keep their personal health information private.
Note: Some communities are more impacted than others. It is vital that employers reopening their businesses should do so in collaboration with local health officials and other State and local authorities.
Best Practices: Scaling Up Operations
Before any place of business can consider returning its operations to pre-COVID-19 levels, employers need to follow this series of steps:
- Step 1: Scale up only if strict social distancing and appropriate cleaning and disinfecting procedures can be ensured for the safety of employees and customers (if applicable). Individuals at higher risk for severe illness are also recommended to shelter in place.
- Step 2: Scale up only if moderate social distancing and appropriate cleaning and disinfecting procedures can be ensured for the safety of employees and customers (if applicable). Individuals at higher risk for severe illness are also recommended to shelter in place.
- Step 3: Scale up only if limited social distancing and appropriate cleaning and disinfecting requirements can be ensured for the safety of employees and customers (if applicable).
Best Practices: Safety Actions
Recommended safety actions can be broken down into four main categories:
- Promote Health Hygiene Practices: Handwashing, cloth face coverings when around others, and covering coughs and sneezes are all musts.
- Intensify Cleaning, Disinfection, and Ventilation: Frequently touched surfaces need to be cleaned at least daily, as well as shared objects between each use. Ventilation should be working and airflow is encouraged.
- Encourage Social Distancing: Can include physical barrier installation (e.g. partitions) and changing workspace configurations so that everyone can stay at least six feet apart. Communal spaces should also remain closed if possible, or at least cleaned and disinfected between uses. Additionally, remote work should be encouraged for as many employees as possible; group events (including gatherings and meetings) of more than 10 people (Step 1), more than 50 people (Step 2), and where social distancing can’t be maintained (all Steps) should be canceled or rescheduled.
- Limit Travel: Cancel or reschedule all non-essential travel (Step 1); resume only in accordance with regulations and guidelines provided by State and local authorities (Steps 2 & 3). If employees use public transit to reach the office, encourage them to continue teleworking to prevent community contact and spread.
Best Practices: Monitoring and Preparing
Part of keeping employees safe is keeping tabs on the health of your team—and having a plan in place in case someone is sick:
- Check for Signs and Symptoms: Consider conducting routine health checks such as temperature and symptom screening of all employees. Note: These must be implemented in accordance with all applicable privacy laws and regulations.
- Establish Employee Sickness Procedures: If employees are sick, they should be sent home immediately and not return until they’ve met the CDC’s requirements “to discontinue home isolation.” Other procedures include transporting a sick person to their home or a healthcare facility, and notifying local health officials, staff, and customers (if applicable) of a possible case. Note: You must maintain confidentiality under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other local regulations. Clean a sick individual’s work area and encourage employees who had close contact with this person to stay home.
- Maintain Healthy Operations: Flexible sick leave and work-from-home measures are encouraged, as well as backup staff in the case of an employee’s prolonged absenteeism due to sickness. Other recommendations include designated a staff member to handle all coronavirus concerns and creating communication systems for employees to self-report sickness and exposures.
Best Practices: Closing the Workplace
As with everything regarding the pandemic, these guidelines are subject to change depending on the state of public health in any given area.
If outbreaks occur, it’s important to adjust your operations in accordance with State and local health department notices—including closing the office again, to keep both your community and your employees safe.
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