Many employees across the United States are returning to their workplaces and employers are taking precautions to ensure their safety and well-being.
In that same vein, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Labor, recently provided guidance for nonessential employers as they prepare to return to the workplace.
The OSHA had previously provided industry-specific guidelines for returning to work, but this most recent guidance is more general and widely applicable. The main takeaway, said Brad Hammock, co-chair of workplace safety and health at Littler Mendelson, P.C, is that employers need to assess their own workplace hazards as there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this situation.
After an employer takes inventory of its own situation, they then must determine the state and local ordinances that are applicable to them
“This is a unique scenario and something that we haven’t seen in any kind of occupational health context where the states and local governments are actively involved in requiring employers to do things,” Hammock said. “OSHA is saying consult what those folks are doing so you’re in compliance there and internalizing what those agencies may be requiring as well.”
Lastly, OSHA said employers should examine whether they can establish a “hierarchy of controls” by implementing engineering or work practice controls first before providing personal protective equipment.
A survey of 543 organizations by Willis Towers Watson found that employers are in fact exploring these avenues in addition to providing PPE. The survey found that most employers (71%) have developed workplace safety and employee safety policies. Additionally, organizations are reconfiguring work areas to maintain six feet of distance (56%), providing PPE such as masks to employees (76%) and staggering shift changes and breaks (57%).
“Companies want to make employees feel comfortable returning to their workspaces,” said Regina Ihrke, senior director and well-being leader, North America, Willis Towers Watson. “To that end, employers are making employee safety and health a top priority with a wide range of actions to safeguard the work environment and minimize exposure to the virus.”
Additionally, the survey found that more than half of companies will use employee questionnaires and thermal scanning to screen the workforce on re-entry. Nearly three in four companies (73%) will require masks in public locations and 24% will require masks at all times. However, only one in six (18%) plan to test employees for acute infection before they return to work.
Many organizations are contemplating whether or not it’s worth the risk to go back to the office. While some organizations’ operations (such as in manufacturing) might necessitate a return to facilities, other businesses are able to operate a full or close to full capacity in a remote environment. What’s more, many businesses operate in buildings they don’t own alongside other companies, which doesn’t give them full control over the workplace environment.
“Those issues complicate the process for employers” Hammock said. “As a result, for that and other reasons, many employers are waiting as long as possible to bring people back. As a practical matter, they’re finding that there’s so many issues involved — it just takes time. Even when states and local areas are opening, sending people back to work is going to continue to be delayed.”
Complicating matters further as organizations are looking to return to the workplace, some areas of the country are seeing a surge in cases. The prospect of a “second wave” is a concern for many employers. The Willis Towers Watson survey found that 67% of companies have a process for dealing with a workplace exposure, while just 32% said they have developed a plan for subsequent waves, though 50% said they will develop such a plan.
“We’re entering yet another phase of this [idea of returning to work,” Hammock said. “OSHA’s guidance document is an important part of that and I think over the next four to five weeks employers will work to flesh this out and we’ll see how it works out.”
“These are difficult issues and there’s almost no employer out there that is able to avoid having to consider these things.”
About the Author
Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.