Returning to the workplace

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Restrictions implemented by the governmental measures to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 have been recently significantly released. The employers are now deciding whether to call their workers back to the workplace and whether and, if so, how to adapt the workplace.

In this article we try to outline some related aspects with the return of the workers to the workplace. This article does not aim to inform about ways of transmission of COVID-19 disease or care of sick workers, but we want to focus on the employer’s responsibilities in relation to prevention, based in part on EU guidelines. However, these are non-binding recommendations and the specific solution and adoption of appropriate measures is always up to the employer.

First of all, it is necessary to realize that it is the employer who is responsible for creating of a safe and healthy working environment. It is the employer who is obliged to create working conditions and take measures to prevent risks. In particular, a suitable organization of safety and health at work can help him with this, within which he will be able to correctly assess the risk and take appropriate measures.

The employers should therefore primarily carry out a new workplace risk assessment, which should result in acceptance of appropriate measures, particularly in order to minimize exposure to COVID-19 disease, to resume work after a period of closure and, last but not least, to manage workers working from home.

First of all, we recommend involving your doctor, who provides you occupational medical services, in the review of the risk assessment. In the Czech Republic, every employer should have a contract for the provision of these services with the relevant doctor. We also recommend that you obtain up to date information from the public authorities on the prevalence of COVID-19 in your area.

Once the risk assessment is updated, the next step is to make an action plan with appropriate measures. Also, don't forget to process and identify the persons who will be responsible for control of compliance with the adopted measures.

Regarding the minimization of the risks of infection, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has issued guidelines from which the following recommendations can be drawn for the Czech Republic:

  1. Carry out only essential work for the time being. If possible, deliver services remotely (phone or video) instead of in person. Ensure that only workers who are essential to the job are present at the workplace and minimize the presence of third parties.
  2. If possible,
    1. reduce physical contact between workers (e.g. during meetings or during breaks)
    2. isolate workers who can carry out their tasks alone safely and who do not require specialized equipment or machinery that cannot be moved
    3. whenever possible, arrange for them to work alone in a spare office, staff room, canteen, or meeting room
    4. ask vulnerable workers to work from home (older people, pregnant workers and those with chronic conditions including hypertension, lung or heart problems, diabetes, or who are undergoing cancer treatment or some other immunosuppression).
  3. Eliminate, and if not possible limit, physical interaction with and between customers. For example, through online or phone orders, contactless delivery or managed entry (while also avoiding crowding outside), and physical distancing both inside and outside the premises.
  4. Place an impervious barrier between workers, especially if they are not able to keep a two-metre distance from each other. Barriers can be purpose-made or improvised using items such as plastic sheeting, partitions, mobile drawers, or storage units. Things that are not solid or that have gaps (like pot plants or trolleys) or that create a new risk (such as from tripping or falling objects) are to be avoided. If a barrier cannot be used, additional space between workers should be created by, for example, ensuring they have at least two empty desks either side of them.
  5. If close contact is unavoidable, keep it to less than 15 minutes. Reduce contact between different parts of your business at the start and end of shifts. Arrange the timing of meal breaks to reduce the number of people sharing a cafeteria, staff room, or kitchen. Ensure there is only one worker at a time in bathrooms and changing rooms. Place a sign on the main door indicating when one of the toilets is in use to ensure that only one person at a time enters. Organize shifts to take account of cleaning and sanitation tasks.
  6. When working indoors with other people, the workers should wear facemasks.  The masks should only be considered as a complementary measure and not as a substitute for established preventive procedures, such as physical distancing. It is necessary that the workers know how to use the mask properly:
    1. the mask should completely cover the whole mouth and nose
    2. before putting on or removing a mask, clean hands thoroughly
    3. when using a reusable mask, it is important to:
      • avoid touching a face and fabric while putting on the mask
      • wear the mask not longer than four hours or until the mask is damp
      • remove the mask by the strings or rubber bands, again do not touch the fabric or face. After handling the mask, it is desirable to wash your hands again. The mask must be sterilized after each use. This can be achieved by washing to the highest temperature, i.e. at least 60 °C, and then ironing the mask while still wet.
    4. if the mask is for a single-use, it is necessary to ensure its safe removing and discarding; as contamination cannot be excluded, it is a hazardous waste which must be safely stored in marked, separate, covered, sealable, impermeable and mechanically resistant packaging, preferably combustible without the need for further handling of the waste. The packaging must be intact, the outer packaging should be treated with disinfection (for more details, see opinion 20-3-2020 – Opinion of the State Institute of Public Health)
  7. Supply soap and water or appropriate hand sanitizer at convenient places and advise workers to wash their hands frequently. Clean your premises frequently, especially counters, door handles, tools and other surfaces that people touch often and provide good ventilation if possible.
  8. If you have identified a risk of infection despite having applied all feasible safety measures, then provide all necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). It is important to train workers in correct use of PPE, ensuring that they follow the guidance available on use of facemasks and gloves.
  9. Place posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the entrance to the workplace and in other areas where they will be seen.
  10. When delivering goods, do so through pick-up or delivery outside the premises. Advise drivers on good hygiene in the cab and provide them with appropriate sanitation gel and wipes.
  11. Avoid excessive workload on cleaning staff by taking appropriate measures, such as assigning additional staff to the tasks and asking workers to leave their workspace tidy. Provide workers with wipes and waste bins lined with a plastic bag so that they can be emptied without contacting the contents.

It is obvious that the current situation places increased demands on the employer and his duties in relation to his employees and for ensuring of a workplace for the proper performance of work, however, this situation can be managed relatively well by respecting the basic rules of safety at work in conjunction with the specifics of the risks of COVID-19 disease.