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Five-pronged approach to safely integrating staff back onsite post-COVID lockdowns, centred around practical workplace modifications.

No matter where your employees work – be it in a warehouse, a building site or an office – the future physical work environment will look considerably different to what we left behind when lockdowns began.

Businesses everywhere must now consider what their COVID-normal workplace will look like when their employees start to return to work. Minimising the risks of COVID-19 infection (and importantly, protecting against any future similarly contagious virus) will require a multi-pronged approach.

Below are five areas that you must consider when safely integrating your employees back to work:

  1. Regularly screen staff and visitors for COVID-19: effective employee screening and contact tracing is essential. Routine screening should include temperature checks of all people before entering your work premises. This could be done manually by infrared thermometers or (if dealing with larger volumes of site visitors) using automated technology like thermal cameras. Personal health reporting systems can be used whereby employees are proactively asked to routinely declare if they have been in close contact with anyone with COVID-19 or are feeling unwell. Apps are already available to track and monitor such data.

  2. Manage pedestrian routes around the workplace: social distancing protocols are important. One practical way of reducing the likelihood and frequency of close contact with others is to regulate people movement within the workplace. One-way travel paths with appropriate visual cues (e.g. stickers, arrows) to indicate travel directions, safe distances, maximum people density in a space and so on should be implemented to minimise interactions. Consider touch-free or voice activated technology for busier areas and bottle necks, such as lifts or building access points.

    COVID-19 can attach to shoes and be walked into the workplace. Manage this at doorways and other pedestrian access points with mats; sanitising walk-off mats are available.

  3. Maintain a rigorous cleaning schedule: all facilities in which people visit and work should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis. All surfaces – not just the commonly touched surfaces – must be sanitised, since viruses will be moved around the workplace by air currents.

    Some surface materials have better viral and germ killing properties than others; copper and wood have been found to have better germicidal properties than stainless steel and plastic, for example.

    Provide adequate hand washing and sanitising facilities for your employees. 

    It is also important to choose equipment (such as task chairs) that are easy to clean, don’t accumulate dust and have superior germicidal properties. Other office equipment such as telephone handsets, headsets, screens, keyboards and desk mice are perfect collectors of dust, dried saliva and microorganisms and should accordingly be a key and frequent cleaning target. 
  4. Reduce risk of airborne COVID-19 transmission: exhaling creates a personal cloud known as the “breathing zone”. Minimising the size and spread of our personal clouds minimises the risk of airborne disease transmission. Consider some of the following tips to help reduce and contain exhaled micro-droplets from spreading throughout the work environment:
  • Indoor air sterilisation. Provide heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems with better air filters and consider germicidal ultra-violet (GUV) lighting systems that kill the virus inside the ventilation system.
  • Open windows if possible and practical to enable exhaled, “used” (and possible infected) air to be vented outside rather than re-circulated inside.
  • Provide better physical protection at the workstation level from other occupants. Separation panels can be retrofitted, providing some protection from sneezes or coughs. Panels should extend out from the desk to mostly enclose the occupant. Private offices are even better.
Separation panels are good. (Image source: SK Partitions)
  • Provide localised air purifier (which filter and supply clean air) systems at individual workstations. A clean supply of air at the workstation also creates a gentle positive local pressure at the desk that provides further protection to the occupant.
  • Adhere to government advice on workplace density limits.
  • Avoid positioning an employee at a desk or work area directly facing another an employee.
  • Provide appropriately specified personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields, and enforce compliance.
  • Consider a hybrid office model, where your staff work both remotely and at the shared, physical workplace. It is critical to manage other risks associated with working from home, though – here is some advice to ensure you don’t create a problem while attempting to solve another. Learn more.
  1. Communicate and train: effective consultation and communication with your staff both prior to and during the return to work phase will ensure a smoother re-integration into the workplace. When you are ready for your employees to return, it is important that you:
    • Consult with your staff: on workplace changes that affect them. Get your staff’s views on returning to the workplace. What are their suggestions for managing the risk of COVID-19 transmission while getting on safely with business? How has working from home worked for them (if they have) and what might the optimum home/physical workplace time split look like for them? Surveying staff on these matters is a great idea, and one our business has employed recently to great effect.
    • Inform your employees: reassure them that it will be safe for them to return to the physical workplace and tell them about all the steps you have taken to protect them from COVID-19. For example, will there be staggered start and finish times? Will there be rotating teams? Will some team members be working from home on given days?
    • Train your employees: there will inevitably be several key rules and policies that you implement on site that everyone will need to know. Educate staff about how they can reduce the risks of COVID-19 in the workplace and at home. Signage and posters placed around the workplace provides good reminders to employees about the risk of COVID-19 and appropriate measures they need to take. Provide further instruction and training on tasks or equipment that have changed since the last time staff were in the workplace. This is particularly important for employees who have been stood-down, absent from work or performing an alternate job.
    • Support your employees: provide all necessary support, empathy, resources and counselling for employees who might be anxious returning to work. Consider providing them with a forum and “COVID point of contact” to confidentially raise any concerns. Explore and offer flexible work options, including hybrid remote and office working arrangements where appropriate and possible.   

With the right measures in place to reduce risks and a practical return to work strategy, it is possible to safely integrate your employees back into the workplace.

In striving to make their workplaces smarter and safer to address the response requirements raised by the current COVID-19 pandemic, businesses will be creating workplaces that can effectively manage future infectious disease outbreaks.

As independent safety and ergonomics experts, Dohrmann Consulting help businesses optimise their workspaces, systems and products so they are safer, more user-friendly and more efficient. If you would like to learn more about how we can help with your COVID-19 return to work plan or other ergonomics and safety requirements, please contact us for an obligation-free discussion.

Workplace safety resources 

Further helpful resources regarding COVID-19 safe workplace practices can be found on the Safe Work Australia website or your state’s respective work health and safety authority:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) state government updates and resources

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