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Returning to work: a COVID-19 guide to workplace health and safety

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people out of the office to work remotely at home instead. As infection levels decrease and lockdown measures lift, however, the conversation has turned to how we might return to the workplace.

This is welcome news to employees who have felt more socially isolated since leaving the office environment. For others, however, returning to work while there is still a global pandemic is a cause of serious anxiety.

Employers looking to start bringing staff back into the workplace need to ensure they plan ahead. The first step, however, is setting up the workplace environment to minimise the risk to employees.

Here are 5 things you need to consider when planning a safe return to the workplace.

A COVID-19 guide to workplace health and safety: immediate steps & logistics

smiley face on a tray blue background

1) Consult with your employees

In such an unprecedented situation, you need to have more than a one-size-fits-all approach to how you handle a return to the workplace. While some employees might be keen to return to the workplace, others will be more apprehensive. Some employees might, for instance, have a compromised immune system or live with an at-risk person.

It’s essential that you consult with your employees about your returning to a workplace plan. Be consistently open and clear upfront about the measures you are taking to ensure their safety. In all likelihood, you will need to factor in an on-going combination of in-the-office and remote-working. Taking an agile approach like this will protect your business from any further disruption that could be caused by a second wave.

At every step along the way, be sensitive about your employees’ individual needs, keep communications clear and encourage a two-way dialogue. This approach will help you to support your staff during this health and economic crisis.

 

woman on public transport with a face mask on covid-19

2) Transport

Public transport, particularly at peak times, can increase the risk of community virus transmission.

For key workers, the reduced demand for public transport while many people have been working from home instead of commuting into the office has literally been a lifesaver.

If you want to begin phasing in a return to the workplace, you first have to consider how your team are getting to and from the office. Are they able to walk or cycle to work? Or do they have a car? If they have a car, is there somewhere secure they can park?

If they are commuting by public transport, you need to take action to minimise the risk. Staggering start and finish times will help your staff avoid rush hours, for instance. Rostering different sections of the team in and out of the office on different days, with thorough cleaning in between, is another way to reduce the demand on public transport.

 

social distancing at work

3) Workplace layout for social distancing

Ensure the workplace is set up to allow for socially distanced working. Current rules require at least 4 square metres of space per person in the workplace space and physical distancing of at least 1.5 metres. You might need to spread out furniture or use floor markings to signpost 1.5-metre distancing requirements.

Review tasks and processes that require close interaction and identify ways to change these so that you can increase physical distancing between workers. If the work task requires workers to be in close contact, consider whether it could be rescheduled to a later date. If it can’t wait, invest in PPE (personal protective equipment) to reduce the risk of workers being exposed to COVID-19.

Stagger break times to reduce the number of people using the kitchen space at one time and ensure each worker has their own equipment or tools. Every business requirements will be different which is why you need to plan for your unique set of circumstances when building your COVID-19 guide to workplace health and safety.

 

hand sanitiser covid-19

4) Temperature checks, face masks & sanitisers

To minimise the risk of spreading infection, you might want to consider introducing temperature checks as people come into work.

An infrared temperature gun is a zero-contact way of checking if a staff member has a high temperature. While it isn’t a fool-proof method of preventing asymptomatic people with coronavirus from entering the building, when used consistently it can help reduce the risk overall.

Similarly, if you want to increase the use of hand sanitiser, it’s important to consider the individual needs of your employees. Hand sanitiser might not be suitable for people with allergies or skin conditions, for example, so consult with them beforehand.

The debate around face masks, particularly about the correct usage of them, is ongoing. The general consensus is, however, that when used correctly face masks can be effective in preventing the spread. Considering the individual needs and preferences of your employees here is key. You can suggest that they wear a mask on their way into work to reduce the risk, for example.

 

sick leave checking temperature covid-19

5) Sick leave

The last thing you want is for a sick staff member to feel pressured to come into the office, potentially spreading the virus to the rest of the team, their families, and whoever else they came into contact with on their way to and from work.

Make it clear to your team not to come into work if they feel at all unwell with COVID-19 symptoms, or if they have been in direct contact with anyone else who has coronavirus symptoms. Encourage them to follow government guidelines of getting tested and self-isolating while they are waiting for their results.

 

Conclusion

COVID-19 has shaken up both our personal and our professional lives immeasurably. There is no doubt that the pandemic has accelerated a new work revolution of increased flexibility and remote working. How we interact with our colleagues and our places of work may have changed forever.

We are all still adapting to the drastic social and behavioural changes that COVID-19 has already had on our lives. As individuals, business leaders and organisations, it’s important that we all do our bit to protect our community.

The situation is fluid and constantly changing so it’s important to get professional assistance to keep on top of the latest updates. Your COVID-19 guide to workplace health and safety might differ to another organisation’s so it’s important to get tailored advice every step of the way.

For the most up-to-date resources and information, check out the Australian Government website, or if you want us to help you with your plan of action, get in touch with us.

Discover our services to help get you through COVID-19.

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About Susan Rochester

BSc MHRM FIML
Susan Rochester has been managing director of Balance at Work since 2006. Susan has a natural tendency to balance analytical thinking with an optimistic outlook to set direction and solve problems. She is an effective facilitator and constantly creates new and more effective ways of doing things, motivated by helping others to achieve their goals.

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