As many organizations, even "nonessential" ones, considered returning to their physical workplace earlier this summer, the protocols and processes they put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 seemed reasonably sound. Most companies drew initial guidance from government agencies. In June, the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released Guidance on Returning to Work. Helpful for many company leaders and office managers, it provides clear principles for returning to work. 

I've been reviewing the recommended protocols and guidelines released thus far, as well as what various companies have done or are continuing to do to safeguard their employees from COVID-19, following closely as offices attempt to return to some form of normalcy, and still make sure their workers are safe and stay healthy. Existing guidelines for employee health outline great methods for disease prevention, and we've worked to prevent disease outbreaks in office spaces before, but never on such a scale. And from what we know, COVID-19 doesn't behave in easily discernible ways.  

Many companies have implemented, or are currently implementing, workplace measures as they go. We'll never have a one-size-fits-all solution, but is there anything we could be doing better? Is there anything we might be overlooking? How might guidelines affect attitudes toward workplace safety? 

Let's consider the OSHA Guidance for Returning to Work. Many companies' first defense against protecting workers' health is to take the temperatures of employees before they even enter the office. Anyone who registers a fever is sent home. 

Great - this is a simple, straightforward approach that works effectively enough. One thing companies could overlook with this process, and might want to consider carefully, is the issue of documentation. If they record employee temperatures anywhere, that is a medical record, which would then bound by medical retention policies, some of which require filing those records for up to 30 years. This may seem excessive but it is the law.

Due to their restrictive nature, the establishment of more specific workplace safety guidelines will certainly alter behavioral trends in the workplace. For instance, when workplaces and office administrators are attempting to enforce mask restrictions, there might still be push-back from employees who do not want to wear mask. This could then pose a risk for workplace safety.

Additionally, employees may grow impatient with temperature checking processes - or frustrated if they are turned away from work with a fever. As a result, we'll need to develop better devices, such as a more portable way to test for COVID-19 that presents rapid or immediate results. This kind of test device is likely a long way away and potentially expensive, but it would be more effective at identifying real health and safety threats, in contrast to basic thermometer and temperature-reading devices.  

Once employees have been cleared to enter an office or workplace, their movement around physical office spaces may likely be under increased scrutiny in efforts to reduce the spread of diseases.  Individual offices with doors have the capability to be closed off from the rest of the office. But open office and closely spaced cubicles are much more common and are a different story altogether. Companies are adjusting the flow of motion by keeping employees far apart from each other and limiting movements to specific areas of a building or in specific patterns. Movement restriction and more rigid limitations in the workplace could take a toll on the mental health of employees who are in the workplace. 

Our nation has weathered pandemics before, although not without some starts and stops. Employers' thorough consideration of things that might go wrong in the workplace, or that may be overlooked, or even the potential longer-term impacts of safety restrictions on their employees, are all imperative to ensuring employees can safely return to work. Thoughtful design and implementation of health and safety guidelines - now and as the situation continues to evolve -  can help to truly make sure our workplaces are safe for everyone.

These are some examples but not a comprehensive list. Are you thinking about how to optimize your workplace safety methods? What might you add to the list? 

Posted In:  Health and Wellness

About John Robinson, MD

Dr. Robinson oversees medical management and predictive modeling within the Healthcare Analytics and Quality programs at FCH. Board certified in Family Medicine, Dr. Robinson is an adjunct faculty member at Gonzaga University and has taught courses in the MBA courses at the Graduate School of Business. In 2011 he was appointed by the Governor of the State of Washington to be one of the original members of the Bree Collaborative.