You can’t help but notice the constant coverage of the spread of Coronavirus on the media at present.
At places of work people are particularly worried about what they should be doing and what they should be avoiding; people are concerned how these new responsibilities impinge on their working practices and even their conduct.
So how do HR departments to take the lead here? What are the crucial things that HR needs to know about Covid-19 and how exactly should they be preparing for what is to come?
Here is our own brief but comprehensive guide to what you should do and what you should not do in the workplace to prepare for whatever this virus has in store for us.
Things You Should Know
What exactly is Coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Coronavirus (specifically and officially referred to a COVID-19) is a generic group of viruses which are referred to collectively by the same name. This virus causes respiratory illness which may be mild or it may be more severe. The virus first appeared in late 2019 in China, and was announced by the World Health Organization as originating in Hubei Province in that country. By 20 March 2020 there were 35000 recorded cases in the United States and more than 340,000 such cases across the whole world.
The symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) start with a persistent cough and fever, together with difficulty breathing, leading to respiratory problems which range from mild to more severe.
How Does the Coronavirus Spread?
Coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads as a result of someone with an existing infection coughing or otherwise exhaling, which sends droplets containing the virus out into the local environment. This may remain on inanimate objects such as tables, chairs, walls or any other surface, where the virus may remain active for up to 72 hours. It is thought that those who exhibit the most severe symptoms are at the most contagious stage. However, it is also thought that people are contagious before that, during the incubation stage. Similar viruses exhibiting incubation stages as long as 14 days have been recorded.
Who are the People Most at Risk from COVID-19?
The World Health Organization tells us that all people are susceptible, but that there are those who are particularly vulnerable including older people and especially those who have a pre-existing clinical condition, including diabetes, asthma and heart disease.
Does Coronavirus have a Vaccine Yet?
At present there are no vaccines or other medical preparations available which can be used to treat COVID-19. The advice is that those who are suffering from the virus need to self-isolate in their own homes. Those who are currently being treated at a clinical care unit will remain there until considered safe enough to go home.
Are Masks Useful in Protecting People from COVID-19?
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has said that it does not recommend most types of facemasks as a preventative precaution against the new Coronavirus. Instead, it has recommended that only FFR face masks be used, and that these should only be used by health care professionals working in the field or people looking after an infected individual. Such masks are useful also when people are sneezing and coughing, in that they can prevent the germs from spreading. In any event, it is necessary to dispose of such masks in a way which is clinically recognized.
What Do OSHA Standards Recommend about COVID-19?
There are some existing requirements which may apply to the prevention of Coronavirus spreading in the workplace, although there are no specific standards relating to COVID-19. OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) specifications as well as their General Duty Clause may apply here. Employers with locations in several states should be aware of the 28 OSHA approved State Plans which set out the health and safety guidelines in this context. In the state of California, for example, the Aerosol Transmissible Diseases measures are designed to mitigate diseases spread through air-borne viruses infecting workers. You should consult the laws in your own state for compliance with inter-state procedures.
What you should do
Make Sure You Have a Clean Office
Probably the best way to prevent disease spreading in the workplace is to ensure that your working environment is kept clean and uncontaminated at all times. In particular, all cleaning materials including hand sanitizers, soap and tissues should be in a convenient location for all employees to freely use and you should provide information such as posters in bathrooms which advise on the recommended hand washing procedures.
Employees and management alike should be provided with sanitized wipes for cleaning any office equipment and furniture such as desks, computers and phones, as all these could be the source of germs.
Communication is Important at All Times
It is so important to keep in constant contact with your workforce to let them know what is happening, when it happens. Ensure that everyone knows in advance what your plans are about stopping the spread of COVID-19 and what is likely to be expected of people at work. Be quite clear about such matters as travel policies, sick leave and working from home. You should also prepare your own Infectious Disease Control Policy for use in your own company. It is especially important to ensure that your management knows how to successfully deal with people who are working remotely.
Employees Who Feel Ill Should Be Encouraged to Stay at Home
It is important for your workforce to know and understand that they will not be disciplined for staying at home if they are feeling ill. Such isolation will obviously reduce the incidence of the virus infecting other people at work.
Impose an Embargo on Business Travel to Infected Places
You should consider banning all such travel to any area or region which has been infected with COVID-19. You should also seriously consider instructing those employees who have returned from such places to work from home and self-isolate, even though they might not exhibit symptoms at the time. They may still be incubating the condition.
Even though COVID-19 is spread right across the globe, we know that some countries are more badly affected than others. Countries which currently show a high incidence of infection include, but are not limited to, China, Italy, South Korea and Iran, so you really shouldn’t plan on travelling to these countries at all. If travel there cannot be avoided then anyone who makes that journey must be told to self-isolate immediately upon their return and stay at home for two weeks. All employees should make themselves familiar with the CDC Traveler’s Health guidelines for up-to-date information relating to overseas conditions.
Your company should implement a Business Continuity Plan. Coronavirus has had a huge effect on certain sectors and to a certain extent on the world’s supply chain. You should be ready for anything that might affect your business and always expect the unexpected. You should factor in contingency plans to take into account the reduced number of employees and if your suppliers have difficulties of their own, which they likely will. Always explain your policies to anyone who needs to know. This includes such matters as HR policy, how pay will be affected, and what employees can expect from the company.
For example, Lanteria HR recently started implementing their employees working from home. It is important that communications are kept up and for this reason our IT team needs to test their existing resources so that everyone is supported at all times. It may be that all the workforce will have to work remotely, so IT will need to ensure that all bases are covered.
Check Your Local Government Announcements
You need to ensure that you are implementing the latest recommendations provided by local government. These should provide timely advice about what to do in certain situations and provide the best possible solutions to unfurling events, so monitor these constantly. Advice on matters such as working from home may change from time to time, as well as proposals for how best to handle other related issues.
What You Should Not Do
Avoid Non-Compliant Policies
It is very important that you do not put in place any policies which do not comply with OSHA standards, however prescient or beneficial you may think those policies are. An example of this is where some employers decided to use forehead thermometers in order to check the temperatures of their workforce. In fact, doing this is only legitimate in cases where the CDC or your local authority has already declared that a pandemic is rife in your locality. If no such declaration has been made then this use of forehead thermometers is not actually allowed in law.
Avoid Large Gatherings and Meetings if this is Feasible
Viruses will spread like wildfire among large gatherings of people, so the best policy would be to ban (either postpone or cancel completely) any large meetings. Any meeting context would be included here, whether it is work related or social. Large corporate conferences should be avoided at all costs because of all the potential ways in which germs can spread at such events.
Do Not Discriminate
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic there have been reports of racial or national prejudice as a result of ignorance, particularly against people of east Asian appearance or origin. Employers should reacquaint themselves with the law on this matter, in particular the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. You are responsible for your workforce; you have a duty of care to make sure that people are safe from such discrimination in the workplace and that they know that they are protected in this way under the law.
Do Not Panic
In conclusion, it is only fair to say that you should prepare as much as possible for all eventualities of an ongoing event whose outcome is unknown, but whose twists and turns may occur suddenly and without warning. Knowing where you stand will mean that there will be, or should be, no panic. Show your employees that you are prepared for whatever may come. You will also put your staff at ease if you show leadership in a calm and measured way.