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How To Return To Work Safely During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Sep 29

After months of remote work and interminable Zoom meetings due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, several employers are now allowing staff to return to the office. But, like the restored gyms, hotels, and schools, businesses have taken on a new look as employers and employees adjust to a new normal that involves face masks, social isolation, plexiglass dividers, and more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued detailed COVID policies for businesses to follow in order to protect their personnel. "COVID-19 can be prevented and slowed in the workplace by businesses and employers. Both the level of disease transmission in the community and your readiness to protect the safety and health of your employees and customers should be considered when making operational decisions "According to the CDC, businesses should take a phased approach to reopening, similar to the White House Guidelines for Opening America Again.

Many people are naturally anxious about returning to work amid the pandemic as some offices begin to reopen their doors. According to experts, here's everything you need to know before returning to work so you and your coworkers can stay safe and healthy.

What impact has COVID-19 had on the workplace?

The days of packed break rooms and shared desks are long gone. Businesses that have decided to reopen in the midst of the pandemic have implemented strict protocols to protect employees and customers, such as requiring social distancing and face masks, staggering schedules to limit the number of employees in the office at one time, and even erecting partitions between desks. Many companies are also asking employees to pass temperature checks when they arrive at work, as well as giving them more flexibility to work remotely when possible. Additionally, offices have instituted more rigorous cleaning and sanitation processes, and some have even provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to all of their staff, as recommended by the CDC.

Is it safe for me to return to work?

The CDC and medical experts believe that returning to work is safe depending on a number of criteria, including the rate of transmission in the area where the business is located, the employer's health and sanitation measures, and whether or not employees actually follow those new guidelines. "In most areas, it is quite safe with the necessary controls in place (such masking and social distance)," explains Amanda M. Valyko, MPH, CIC, FAPIC, Director of Infection Prevention & Epidemiology at the University of Michigan Medical School. The CDC advises businesses and employees to keep an eye on local and federal COVID-19 advice and laws to ensure they are doing everything possible to protect everyone in the workplace.

Another element to consider is the type of work that is done at the office. "Higher risk work settings would be those where the work is done inside, there is regular face-to-face contact with the public, workers are required to work in close proximity to one another, or there is poor ventilation," explains Michael D. Sweat, PhD, Director of the Medical University of South Carolina's Division of Global and Community Health.

How can you keep yourself safe at work?

Wearing a mask, social distancing, and practicing proper hand hygiene are the three most critical things to do to protect yourself at work, according to experts. "The only places you should be uncovered indoors are in your own personal office or partitioned cubicles at least 6 feet from others," advises Christopher Ohl, MD, a Wake Forest Baptist Health infectious disease expert. While he recommends wearing a mask at all times indoors (such as in conference or break rooms), he admits that doing so around lunchtime can be difficult. "Lunchtime is one area where I've seen workplace exposures arise. Obviously, no masks are worn, making this the event with the largest risk of virus infection in the workplace in many cases "He clarifies. "If you eat with others, do so in a large room, away from others, or outside to reduce this danger."

Even if you're wearing a mask, keep a six-foot distance between you and your coworkers or clients, and space out your desks accordingly. Washing your hands (or using hand sanitizer) frequently and disinfecting your desk, chair, and high-touch locations (such doorknobs or elevator buttons) with disinfecting wipes are also recommended by the CDC. To prevent the spread of bacteria, avoid sharing workstations, keyboards, and other equipment with coworkers.

Experts also advise people to prioritize their own safety (as well as the protection of those around them). "It can be difficult to speak out when coworkers or customers put you in danger," Dr. Sweat says, "but it is still critical that you stand up for your safety and calmly suggest that people follow corporate norms." Similarly, if you have any symptoms or aren't feeling well, stay at home to prevent endangering your coworkers.

While these precautions, particularly wearing a face mask, may not be the most comfortable or convenient, keep in mind that they are in place to protect both you and your coworkers. ""It's not just about safeguarding oneself," Dr. Ohl emphasizes, "it's also about keeping individuals around you from 'getting' COVID-19 from you if you're sick asymptomatically or shedding virus before you acquire symptoms." You also want to safeguard your coworkers and colleagues as a responsible citizen."