With the increase in vaccination rates, the US is getting closer to reaching herd immunity. In Washington state, COVID-19 requirements are set to expire for most settings on or by June 30, 2021. Employers are eager to get their staff back into the workplace, but what factors should be considered before bringing employees back or increasing the number of staff allowed in a building?
First, communication with employees is key. Survey your employees to find out their feelings on returning to the office. National surveys have had mixed results lately; some have suggested up to half of employees are eager to return to in person work, others have suggested a third of employees will leave a company that requires a strict return to a five day in person work week, and still another has suggested only a quarter of employees feel the time is right to return to in person work. Based upon the results you get from your employee communication, consider what is necessary to make your workers more comfortable for their health and safety.
Consider if some jobs can remain fully remote, or if flexible working schedules are possible. Up to 15% of the world’s population have a disability; remote work can allow disabled workers the flexibility to thrive at work and still maintain their health. Regardless of whether you decide to allow remote or flexible work weeks, encourage sick workers to stay home or work from home, and work on creating a company culture that promotes wellness.
Once you have communicated with your employees and established what staff will return to in person work, consider ventilation, engineering, and administrative controls for the virus. Increase the flow of outdoor air or increase the efficiency of filters in your HVAC system to MERV 13 filters; aim for 4-6 air changes per hour in your facility (medical facilities have higher standards). To engineer a healthier office concept, move away from open workspaces, extend cubicles to at least 6 ft of height, and add other barriers as needed for your workspace. Finally, use administrative controls, such as training your people to wear masks and social distance, limiting the number of people in the office at one time, and encouraging people to stay home when sick.
Encourage your workers to get vaccinated; lead by example, consider offering vaccine incentives, and allow workers the time to stay home after their shot should they have a reaction. In Washington, only vaccinated employees may work without a mask indoors, and in some regions such as King County masks are still highly recommended for indoor workplaces.
Build a company infection control plan and committee that will be ready to communicate changes and updates to employees. This will give you company resilience for future outbreaks, be they COVID-19 variants or pandemic influenza. Understand how different diseases are transmitted, this can help you figure out what preventions are necessary to prevent the spread: handwashing, masks, barriers, remote work, to list a few common methods.
In addition to COVID-19 risks, reopening dormant buildings can pose a risk from mold, Legionella, and copper/lead in the water system. Follow all CDC reopening guidelines for increasing occupancy or reopening a dormant building (links in the references). EHS-International, Inc. also produced a video summarizing these recommendations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWZVpoJltpQ&t=3s
As you create your return to work plan, make certain you are following all WA state Labor and Industries guidelines, found at: https://www.lni.wa.gov/safety-health/safety-topics/topics/coronavirus. This includes new guidelines for masking for vaccinated employees.
For industry-specific COVID-19 guidance from L&I, go to https://lni.wa.gov/safety-health/safety-topics/topics/coronavirus#industry-and-topic-specific-resources