Federal agencies Return to work

Safe return-to-work plans must be comprehensive, NIOSH director says

John Howard

John Howard

Itasca, IL — Safely returning people to work during the COVID-19 pandemic requires more than a single, one-dimensional strategy, NIOSH Director John Howard says.

As states have begun to allow some businesses to reopen, industry-specific guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies has provided a framework for employers to develop and implement their own plan.

During an April 30 webinar, part of a continuing series of webinars titled “COVID-19 and the Workplace” hosted by the National Safety Council, Howard pointed to a few common guidelines, including disinfecting surfaces regularly, maintaining physical distancing, encouraging workers to stay home when sick, promoting cough and sneeze etiquette, and understanding aerosol transmission of the coronavirus.

“We have to use them all at the same time in order to create the safest workplace possible,” Howard said. “All of these mitigation strategies (must) all come together. That’s why I suggest that every workplace has to have a workplace infection control coordinator to know what’s going on.”

Howard discussed numerous aspects of COVID-19 implications on the workplace and community, including the importance of keeping infected individuals separated from those who are not. “The reason we do that is because the virus does not have wings or feet,” he said. “It needs us to be together.”

From an occupational health standpoint, Howard said leaning on the Hierarchy of Controls is paramount. “How can we eliminate the virus from the workplace?” he asked. “(For) substitution, we want to replace the hazard with a nonhazardous environment without the virus. There are engineering controls we can do, depending on the workplace, trying to isolate people. There are administrative controls, and there’s PPE.”


But what if, for example, an employee in a manufacturing facility tests positive for COVID-19?

“You want to look at that area where the employee was or areas where the employee was working to make sure those areas are disinfected,” Howard said. “You may want to adjust work operations depending on your absenteeism rate. The other thing that is extremely important is to look at your community numbers, both on the state level and the municipal level,” on local health department websites.

Howard encouraged employers and workers to stay up to date on the latest guidance from CDC and other agencies. Another resource is NSC’s SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns, a comprehensive, multifaceted effort to guide employers through the process of safely resuming traditional work and operations now and in a post-COVID-19 pandemic environment.

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