Reopening in the Age of COVID

Around the nation, government agencies and businesses, large and small, are beginning to reopen during what is arguably one of the most challenging times of the early 21st century. After lengthy shutdowns, the process of reopening in a safe and responsible manner is an issue many face.  

As a leading supplier of equipment and information in the public safety world, Safeware also faces these challenges as we begin the process leading toward what we hope are normal operations.

To get some recommendations, Safeware turned to David Ladd, Director of Compliance and Risk Management for HCG Associates. David has a 35-plus year career in Emergency Response, serving as the Chief of Operations for the City of Boston’s Emergency Medical Service as was an early pioneer of the National Disaster Medical System.


Q: Am I required to protect my workforce from COVID – 19 exposure?

DL: Yes, there may specific requirements for each state that align with the re-opening of the economy.  The strength of those requirements will vary in each state.  Nationally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been treating COVID-19 as an occupation hazard, based upon the various emergency declarations that have accompanied the outbreak.  As such, under the “General Duty Clause” of OSHA, you must take reasonable measures to protect your workforce.  In some industries, OSHA has sent “official” inquiry letters after one or more worker have become ill.

Q: How do I know what kind of mask to provide for my workers?

DL: There is a pretty simple “Rule of Thumb.” “Surgical” or “Procedure” masks serve to protect others from someone who is wearing the mask by limiting the aerasolization of droplets from coughing, sneezing or even speaking.  So the concept of protection in this level of mask is that everyone should wear them, if they are unable to be separated by other distancing measure or partitions.  An N-95 mask is intended to protect the wearer from a known, suspected or unprotected exposure.  Generally, this would apply to healthcare and public safety personnel, only.  However, if your employees are sent to other workplaces, where you cannot control adherence to distancing and other precautionary measures, it is prudent to equip them with fit tested N-95 masks for their own protection.

Q:  How long do I have to keep this up?

DL: The easy answer is until there is a vaccine.  However, history tells us that major events, such as this, always bring new laws and regulations.  It is worth looking at your workplace in terms of permanent modifications in workspaces and processes to provide, either permanent separations, or have plans in place that can be instituted every flu season going forward.  This will be the new normal.

Q:  Besides masks, gloves, and disinfecting, what other measures should I look at to protect my business and my workers, but with fewer ongoing costs?

DL:  Look at what are called engineering and administrative controls.  Watch your workplace for opportunities to “control traffic” through simple barriers or cuing lines.  Extend partitions to ceiling height or above 7’.  Where workers engage in processes on an assembly line type structure, run partitions down the middle, so that they are physically separated.  Consider administrative measures such as keeping the workforce in small clusters; all taking breaks, lunch, etc together.  That way if an employee becomes ill, contract tracing is limited to a small collection of employees, not the entire business.

Q:  What else should I do?

DL: Have a plan.  Anyone may have one or more employees become ill, even if the exposure is not work related.  Knowing what you will do and who will be responsible for what can prevent an illness from become a catastrophe.  Here are some simple rules:

- Be honest.  The truth will get out and if you attempted to cover something up, you will have no credibility with your employees, customers, public officials, the press … well you get it.

- Document, Document, Document.  If you didn’t write it down, you didn’t do it.  Good records end speculation.

- Learn about “Risk Communication.”  Many a great effort has failed, because the response was not well communicated.  Risk Communication is a specialty.  There are private consultants in this area of expertise and free classes from FEMA.  Don’t underestimate its importance

- Make a decision!  The only thing worse than a bad decision is no decision.  People will accept a less than perfect solution, made under duress for the right reasons and allow for correction.  Indecision will lead to chaos.

- Look at adopting the Incident Command, or Incident Management model in your business.  Government understands this and can interface with the model easily to assist.  Being able to state that you institute the same management system in your business to manage emergencies as every local, state and federal agency is required to use, gives credibility.  Oh yeah, on top of all that, it actually works!