COVID-19 and the workplace: Welcome to the new normal

COVID-19 and the workplace: Welcome to the new normal

Dr Ernest Madu & Dr Paul Edwards

Sunday, July 12, 2020

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AS the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread worldwide, the economic dislocation caused by the shutdown has become evident in all countries, particularly small, tourism-dependent island nations like Jamaica.

The search continues for a vaccine or drug therapy that will be effective. What has also become clear is the need for the restart of the economy and the resumption of economic activity in the current situation (the so-called new normal). Unfortunately, the coronavirus is still very much with us and is wreaking havoc in societies where the economic restart has been poorly managed. In the United States for example, attempts at economic restart have been halted in various states because of the alarming increase in the rates of new infections and deaths, following relaxation of lockdown measures.

States like Florida, Texas and Arizona are currently facing an unprecedented COVID-19 crisis following a faulty attempt at economic reopening. It is irrefutable now that situations in which people are gathering do pose some risk of the transmission of COVID-19 disease, but effective measures can be taken to lower this risk as far as possible to create an acceptable balance between public health and necessary economic activity to forestall an economic collapse and its attendant social consequences. To do this, we must reimagine the way we live and work. We must embrace a paradigm shift and a new workplace.

The new workplace

Early during the pandemic many governments and localities imposed lockdowns, essentially confining large segments of the population to their homes. While this was useful in decreasing and slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, it did not allow for many normal business activities to take place. While some occupations/businesses can be run from home, there are several activities that require employees to work either together or to interact with customers daily. This is particularly so in developing countries like Jamaica where the informal sector is the economic lifeblood of the nation, with hundreds of thousands of citizens engaged in microenterprises requiring daily direct contact with clients and customers. Recognising this need, government agencies including our own Ministry of Health have produced guidelines to attempt to create as safe a working environment as is possible.

All businesses, including microenterprises, should have a COVID-19 plan. This plan should serve to identify areas and tasks in the organisation that are at risk for COVID-19 and then proactively enact measures to eliminate or reduce this risk as far as is possible. Every business must develop a plan that considers its own circumstances and risks. For instance, an accountancy firm may find that much of it's work can be accomplished with employees working from home, using teleconferencing and email. In this scenario the need to meet clients or other employees in person may be almost non-existent. Factory, health care and retail operations such as supermarkets will often find the need to have many employees working together in relatively close contact or that there is a need to be in close relation to customers. In such organisations, a COVID-19 plan should aim to remake the work and encounter spaces to create safe distances between individuals, and should ensure universal requirement for face masks and ready access to sanitisation stations within the premises. A COVID-19 plan should ideally try to prevent infection and transmission of COVID-19 disease among employees and should attempt to maintain a healthy work environment.

For businesses that need employees to return to the office or factory environment, educating the employees is extremely important. Mechanisms must also be put in place to ensure mandatory compliance with proven, effective containment measures like use of face coverings by all employees and social distancing to the extent possible.

It may also be necessary to limit the number of employees on duty at any given time. Clients may also be encouraged to wait in their vehicles to be served or receive their orders if appropriate. Employees should know the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 disease. They should be told that if they are feeling unwell, they should not come to work and if they feel ill at work, they should understand the business' plan for seeking care and avoiding contact with other employees. Employees should understand the mode of spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and measures that can decrease the spread such as social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing etc. If feasible, daily health and temperature screening of employees when they come to work should be done. This would ideally include asking for any unusual symptoms and measuring temperature with infrared thermometers.

Re-imagining work processes

Changes in work processes can be useful in reducing the spread of COVID-19 disease in the office or factory environment. It may be possible to have employees work six feet away from each other in some office or factory settings. In other settings this may be impossible or impractical. In settings where distancing is not possible, then mask wearing does offer some protection. Ideally, all employees working together should wear masks, particularly when working in enclosed environments. Frequent hand washing should be encouraged, particularly at the start and end of shifts, after blowing the nose, sneezing or coughing, eating or preparing food, touching the face, changing or touching one's mask. Ensuring that every work area has easy access to a method of hand washing is important. Using soap and water is the best choice but if this is not available, alcohol-based hand sanitisers should be used.

Routine cleaning and disinfection of frequently used objects should be done. Examples would include desks, chairs, telephones, doorknobs and elevator buttons etc. Employees should be encouraged not to share items such as tools, pens, computers as far as is practicable. If these items must be shared they should be cleaned and disinfected between each person's use. The use of flexible schedules may be useful in decreasing the number of employees who need to be present in the office at any time. Large gatherings of people for meetings and conferences should be discouraged, but if necessary, participants should be encouraged to remain six feet apart. Handshaking and hugging should be discouraged. If possible, companies should review sick leave policies to try to encourage employees who feel unwell to remain at home without significant financial disadvantage.

Customers

Workplaces whose business activities include a significant number of customer-facing activities have additional challenges. However, measures can be taken to reduce the likelihood of disease spread. The first question that can be asked, is it necessary for the customer to enter the establishment? Many retail operations can be conducted in a socially distant manner.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a significant rise in online shopping, which can be paired with delivery services and kerbside pickup. This can prevent the need for close interaction between employees and customers. Unfortunately, many business processes cannot be performed in a socially distant manner. Some customer goods must be inspected in person, personal services such as barber shops or hair salons and restaurant activities require employees and customer to be in somewhat close proximity to each other.

In situations where customers must enter the business establishment, the processes that apply to employees should be used. There should be signs encouraging customers not to enter if they are feeling ill. Temperature checks and hand washing can be performed on entry, and compulsory mask wearing can be enforced. Frequent cleaning and disinfecting of frequently used surfaces and objects should be done.

Restaurants pose a problem, given the fact that wearing a mask is not practical for diners. Many municipalities that allowed restaurant openings have allowed only take-out or delivery services. Outdoor tables with spacing between them has also been implemented, as well as limited amount of indoor seating with spacing.

Another problem is that of employees whose work requires them to interact with many customers, for example cashiers, waiters etc. They are at increased risk of COVID-19 infection. For these employees, education about their risk and methods of lowering this is extremely important. They should be encouraged to wear face masks and ensure that the working environment is frequently cleaned/disinfected. Barrier protection or partitions are often used in these circumstances. Contactless payment methods, avoiding the use of money, and encouraging credit card terminals may also be useful.

As we continue to reopen our economy and adapt our lives to this new normal, we should attempt to keep the gains that we have made so far.

Keep safe.

 

Dr Ernest Madu, MD, FACC and Dr Paul Edwards, MD, FACC are consultant cardiologists at Heart Institute of the Caribbean (HIC) and HIC Heart Hospital.

Correspondence to emadu@caribbeanheart.com or call 876-906-2107

 


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