You may be among the millions of people whose homes have become their workplaces during the coronavirus crisis. Now with widespread distribution of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines underway, your return to the physical workplace may be on the horizon. If you’re an essential worker in health care or another sector vital to national safety and security, such as manufacturing, energy, and government, you may have already returned to work—or working from home may never have been an option. If you’re already working in a lab or office, you may be part of a team of leaders trying to manage workplace logistics. For you, maintaining or reestablishing an onsite workforce presents a major challenge: the traditional workplace is conducive to coronavirus transmission.
SARS-CoV-2 can easily spread in places where people work in close proximity to one another, particularly in locations such as warehouses or manufacturing facilities, or in roles where they come in close contact with customers or the public (think of retailers, caregivers, or first responders). While infection with SARS-CoV-2 can make a person sick with symptoms like fever, cough, or loss of taste, among others, preventing the spread is not simply a matter of asking sick people to stay home. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association1 found that transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus by people who show no symptoms may account for more than half of all transmissions, and therefore that “the identification and isolation of persons with symptomatic COVID-19 alone will not control the ongoing spread of SARS-CoV-2.”
So if workplaces can’t be made virus-free by isolating symptomatic carriers, how can companies make them safe enough to work in? While strategies may vary depending on the specific size, resources, and needs of a particular organization, this blog post identifies four key tactics that companies are relying on to make onsite operations in the current reality as safe as possible.
Investing in employee health pays off
The global SARS-CoV-2 crisis has provided a stark example of what decades of research has consistently shown: employee wellness should be viewed as a business imperative. A landmark study published in the Harvard Business Review in 20102 revealed that even in healthy times, “a comprehensive, strategically designed investment in employees’ social, mental, and physical health pays off.” The study cited the case of Johnson & Johnson, whose leaders estimated that investing in robust wellness programs saved the company $250 million on health care costs over a decade. According to the study, investing in employee wellness leads to a decline in lost workdays and presenteeism (a lack of productivity caused by illness or stress), fewer worker’s comp claims, higher morale, and a tendency for employees to stay with a company.
This general truism of healthier times—investing in employee health pays off—is all the more crucial in the new reality; that’s because some of the problems resulting from the threat of the coronavirus are amplified in the very sectors of society that are critical to combatting it. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US reported recently that absenteeism during the crisis has been significantly elevated in essential work like personal health care, health care support, and food production3. Overcoming the coronavirus takes work, and it can only happen if essential workers can show up to safely do that work.
There may be no clearer example of the prioritization of essential worker safety than governments making sure workers in critical functions get to the front of the line for vaccination. But it’s not enough. While vaccines can potentially reduce absences and improve productivity4, challenges in vaccine supply chains and distribution mean that vaccinations can’t be relied on as a workplace panacea for essential workers or anyone else transitioning back to the workplace5. Furthermore, threats posed by mutations that help the virus potentially diminish vaccine effectiveness mean we shouldn’t let down our guard6.
While not a complete list of how to make the workplace safer, these four important tactics have already been helping companies protect employees, recover lost revenue, and maintain output. Taking these actions may also help guide your company in addressing the spread and effects of coronavirus.
1. Assemble a rapid response team
Establishing a critical-incident management team can be particularly effective when a high-risk event has widespread impact, according to Harvard Business School Professor Robert Kaplan.
“The team should consist of employees from different functions and levels of the company, external people with relevant expertise, and representatives of stakeholders and partners,” Kaplan explains. He identifies the type of critical-incident team required to address the coronavirus epidemic: Not only do you need key internal stakeholders, but you also need individuals with medical, public health, and public policy expertise. Your company may not have all of these resources internally, so you’ll need to bring in members from outside. The team should meet daily, identifying priorities and delegating inquiries. The key to the success of such a diverse team is positive discussion dynamics.
“Meetings must be psychologically safe gatherings where everyone can offer untested ideas and disagree,” Kaplan explains. “What is right is far more important than who is right.”7
2. Create an environment designed to minimize viral spread.
The CDC guide for warehouse employers8 provides a useful set of protocols that can apply more broadly to any indoor workplace, including but not limited to:
- Make mask-wearing mandatory for both employees and visitors
- Maintain social distancing with workstation modifications where necessary and post signs and reminders
- Stagger work schedules to limit the number of people in a workspace at one time
- Work with your facilities management team to adjust or improve building ventilation9 and provide enhanced cleaning efforts10
3. Implement an effective asymptomatic testing program.
While popular detection techniques such as temperature checks and self-reporting can help slow the spread of the coronavirus, they’re limited in their inability to detect it in populations that have asymptomatic individuals or those with mild non-specific symptoms who may not realize they are infected and may be missed in the detection process11. Further, the staffing required to implement and oversee such programs may take resources away from more effective measures, such as testing. Testing is an important component in a workplace safety program because it may help identify infected individuals, particularly those who are asymptomatic, and limit their ability to infect others. Quarantining infected individuals as early as possible can reduce work interruptions and even potentially stop super-spreader events.
Science companies may have the resources to set up their own lab to test for SARS-CoV-2, or you may enlist an outside contractor to set up an asymptomatic testing program for your employees. An asymptomatic testing plan may rely on a variety of test types, but the most popular tests fall under two broad categories: polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and antigen testing.
- PCR testing—considered the “gold standard” in coronavirus detection and known for a high level of accuracy, PCR tests detect the genetic material specific to a virus, even within days of infection, and even in asymptomatic cases. Employees’ samples can be taken and analyzed all within the same workday, depending on lab capabilities and demands. Innovations such as direct PCR and mobile labs can provide frequent testing of a large number of employees in a short amount of time.
- Rapid antigen testing—Point-of-care (POC) antigen tests work by detecting antigens, i.e., protein fragments on the surface of a virus. These tests can be run in a laboratory or in a doctor’s office or clinic. Rapid antigen tests can give results within minutes and have been shown to be useful in detecting infection in symptomatic individuals, which makes it a popular option in low-volume clinical settings. But due to its low sensitivity, it is not recommended as a stand-alone solution—especially if symptoms are not present—and may require confirmation by a PCR test.
4. Sustain investment in employee health and wellness
A robust workplace safety plan should include supporting susceptible employees. Workers should be invited to disclose their conditions at their own discretion but should also be informed of the high value of sharing their susceptibilities with the company. They should be made aware of the measures the company will take to protect them. According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work12, susceptible employees include “older people and those with chronic conditions (including hypertension, lung or heart problems, diabetes, or who are undergoing cancer treatment or some other immunosuppression) and pregnant workers.” Companies should also take into consideration workers with close family members who are at high risk.
Support measures to help protect vulnerable employees include providing access to necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), and extra diligence in observation of companywide social distancing policies with high-risk individuals. Furthermore, care for coronavirus-related illnesses should be made available through employees’ health plans. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)13, some employers are reviewing their employee benefit plans to ensure that they are providing resources to help address health issues that can be exacerbated during the current crisis, and may consider adding coverage such as mental health, virtual health assessments, and childcare.
How you can take action now
Your company’s choice of how to address the challenge of workplace safety depends on your unique needs—determining in particular how essential it is to work in person. If you have the resources, you may choose to vertically integrate your coronavirus safety measures within your company’s operations, or you may choose to contract with companies that specialize in safety and testing. These are critical and complex decisions, but there are many resources available and people you can talk to.
Feel free to check out our Asymptomatic Population COVID-19 Testing Guide to learn how we can partner to get you back to work.