COVID-19: Return to work

Trends in ... return to work

‘The pandemic is not over’

COVID-19 has dominated the world the past year, and employers have been challenged to protect their workers from exposure to the coronavirus while keeping operations up and running.

“So much has changed because of COVID-19, including workplaces,” said Sean McGowan, global head, people and culture, with Appspace.” We’ve seen changes to the physical environment, teams and schedules.”

Safety+Health spoke with several experts, including McGowan, about technology being used to help employees safely return to the workplace, concerns or questions they’re hearing, and what they wish employers and workers better understood.


Beyond the now-common strategies of contactless temperature screenings, increasing sick leave policies, staggering employee shifts, and more, what are employers doing to protect workers?

Many companies have turned to digital communications to create a more informed workplace, McGowan said, adding: “Enterprise messaging and collaboration apps are also used to connect the hybrid workplace and maintain company culture.”

Danny Shields, CSP, vice president of industry relations at Avetta, seconded this.

“To safely return employees to work, many employers are turning toward digital solutions,” he said. “These include tracking time and attendance over apps, creating contactless entry points, and utilizing cloud-based software to capture documents and training certificates that were previously paper based.”

The use of wearable technology also has gained steam during the pandemic.

“That includes integrating contact tracing devices, social distance alarms, even temperature checks, into the ID badges or equipment employees are already used to wearing,” said Dan Aicher, CEO of EmbedTek. “Time matters when it comes to an employee testing positive for COVID. It is a race to get close contacts isolated to prevent further spread throughout a workplace.”

Andy Brousseau, director of industrial safety and compliance for Justrite Safety Group, said hazard assessments should be conducted to determine when, where, how and what sources of SARS-CoV-2 workers are likely to be exposed during their job duties. And don’t forget hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, and cleaning and disinfection. “Identify high-traffic areas and surfaces or items that are shared or frequently touched that could become contaminated,” he added.

Voicing concerns

Workers who are returning to the work environment may have many concerns. “Have employers been cleaning the facilities as well as they should?” is one they might ask, Brousseau said. Another is questioning the true health of employees returning, as people with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic.

“Employers are worried about risky employee behavior outside of work that then introduces COVID-19 to the workplace,” Shields said.


A question from employees may be around a reasonable expectation of privacy if they are required to wear a contact tracing device, Aicher said. His answer: “There are peer-to-peer proximity monitoring solutions available that do not require Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or GPS, which eliminates privacy concerns for employees, and infrastructure changes for employers.”

Added Shields: “Organizations are also concerned about how to perform contact tracing with confidence. The use of apps and wearable technology has supported this effort, but a sound process that companies are comfortable implementing is still a challenge.”


McGowan noted that although many workers have returned to onsite operations, others continue to work from home, adding that the hybrid workplace is now much more common. “Organizations must acknowledge the challenge this hybrid model brings to prevention training and reinforcement,” he said. “Is everyone following the same guidelines? Are they following them both at home and at work? It’s critical to adjust your training and reinforcement methods, so they serve the entire workforce.”

Even after employers set up guidelines for returning to work, they need to do regular audits to ensure the protocols they’ve put into place are actually effective, Shields said. “This is not a one-time event and the pandemic is not over.”

Compiled with the assistance of the International Safety Equipment Association

Coming next month:

  • Safety signs and labels
  • Protective clothing

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