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COVID-19 pandemic: ‘Workers’ health is public health,’ experts say in webinar on service industry

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Berkeley, CA — Providing proper safeguards for service industry workers considered essential in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is vital not only for maintaining their health and safety, but for preventing the spread of the disease, say a pair of workplace health experts from the University of California, Berkeley.

Suzanne Teran, associate director for the university’s Labor Occupational Health Program, and Alejandra Domenzain, coordinator of public programs for LOHP, were the featured speakers on a March 30 webinar hosted by the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.

The presenters covered a wide array of topics, including the three common ways essential workers (including those in health care, food production and distribution, and retail and grocery stores) are exposed to COVID-19 while on the job:

  • Close contact with other people, such as co-workers, clients and the public
  • Contact with work surfaces and supplies
  • Commuting to and from work, particularly when using public transportation

Service industry workers should follow physical distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means keeping at least 6 feet of space between yourself and others, including co-workers, at all times. Other recommendations:

  • Frequently touched areas, surfaces and objects should be cleaned and disinfected regularly.
  • Employers should encourage workers to wash their hands often and provide more time and supplies, such as handwashing stations and hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Workers should be encouraged to go home if they or a family member has symptoms of COVID-19 (which include a fever, coughing and shortness of breath), without fear of losing their job as a result.
  • Employers should provide workers with proper personal protective equipment, such as gloves, masks and eye protection, to safety do their jobs.

Domenzain went on to discuss the greater need for PPE among service industry workers. Health care workers who provide direct patient care are at greatest risk among service industry workers and should have the highest level of protection available to them, including N95 particulate respirators, faceshields, gowns and gloves.

For retail and grocery workers, gloves can serve as a reminder to not touch their face, Domenzain said. Workers can become ill by touching infected surfaces, then touching their eyes or face with a soiled glove.

 

“You should always assume that your gloves are contaminated and not reuse them,” she said. “Change them frequently. Also, wash your hands after removing them. The same things that were on your gloves are now on your hands (after you take them off).”

Although many workers are now performing their duties remotely, service industry workers are on the front lines providing essential products and services.

“We’re realizing how crucial they are to the functioning of our day-to-day (activities),” Domenzain said. “It’s really heartening for me to see this recognition that workers’ health is public health. We’re only as strong as the protections for our most vulnerable. When workers aren’t healthy, they can’t work. They can’t care for others. And, they contribute to the public not being healthy.”

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