Workplace exposures

New ways of working safely

From basic best practices to technology, how employers are adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Photos: Oregon State Building Trades Council

Some jobs require putting people in proximity. So, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for reducing the spread of COVID-19 has proved a challenge for employers in certain industries. In addition to following the recommendations from CDC, OSHA and other authorities, employers and safety professionals have turned to technology and their own creativity to find ways for people to work safely in this new normal.

Basic best practices

Universal best practices – familiar to most people – include wearing a face covering or respirator while working, frequent handwashing, and maintaining 6 feet of distance from other people when possible. In addition, many employers are screening workers for potential COVID-19 symptoms before they enter the workplace (mobile apps are available) and encouraging sick employees to stay home.

Other mitigation measures vary by industry. For example, for construction workers, recommendations from the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences include:

  • Placing a plexiglass barrier between workers when 6 feet of physical distancing isn’t possible
  • Using one-way lanes of travel on paths and stairs
  • Assigning tools to workers to prevent the risk of exposure through sharing
  • Allotting more time to complete jobs so workers can allow others to pass when working in tight or narrow spaces

CDC guidance for manufacturing facilities includes variations of those above, as well as staggering work shifts when possible; consulting with a heating, ventilation and air conditioning engineer to ensure adequate ventilation; and modifying the alignment of workstations and production lines.

“I think there’s lots of opportunity to look at workstations as you evolve a facility going forward,” said Deb Roy, president and owner of SafeTech Consultants Inc., as well as president of the American Society of Safety Professionals. “I think we’re going to have to look at more distancing and whether or not the layout is appropriate regarding exposures to other people.”


Safe communication

Even activities as simple as pre-work safety meetings have had to be rethought.

Physical distancing is a point of emphasis among National Utility Contractors Association members, said George Kennedy, who retired last year as the organization’s vice president of safety. He said the association advises contractors not to share or pass cellphones, tablets or other electronic devices during meetings and safety talks.

If screens are needed for communication, meeting leaders should display the devices from a safe distance, NUCA recommends, with workers spaced apart as they listen.

A sample plan document exploring COVID-19 exposure prevention, preparedness and rescue developed by the Construction Industry Safety Coalition, and later revised by the Associated General Contractors of America, suggests all in-person meetings be limited and changed to telephone meetings when possible. For in-person safety meetings, the groups advise against gatherings of more than 10 people while keeping participants 6 feet apart. In addition, attendance should be taken verbally rather than passing around a paper sheet or mobile device for sign-in.

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