Show compassion, provide stability, share hope: Total Worker Health experts talk return-to-work planning

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Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation

Washington — The director of NIOSH’s Office for Total Worker Health says employers should think about the physical and mental health needs of their employees returning to the job amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Continue to focus on the supports that workers need most in difficult times,” L. Casey Chosewood said during the agency’s June 25 webinar on strategies for safely returning people to the workplace. “They obviously want to trust you as they return to work, so show them compassion, provide stability and share hope that we will all get through this together.”

NIOSH colleagues R. Todd Niemeier, industrial hygiene team lead, and Kevin H. Dunn, a research mechanical engineer, joined Chosewood in discussing reopening scenarios for general business, offices and manufacturing settings.

They encouraged employers to get familiar with several key guidance documents, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to COVID-19 and Resuming Business Toolkit, which includes a restart readiness checklist and worker protection tool.

Dunn said restarting normal or phased business operations is an opportunity for employers to implement and update COVID-19 preparedness response and control plans. These plans should be specific to the workplace, identifying all areas and job tasks in which employees face potential exposure, and include measures to eliminate or control exposures.

Other recommendations:

  • Designate a COVID-19 workplace coordinator, and ensure all workers know who this person is and how to contact him or her. The coordinator also should know and follow local and state regulations, as well as public health guidelines.
  • Conduct a thorough hazard assessment to learn about existing and potential hazards as workers return.
  • Consider changing duties of vulnerable workers to minimize their risk and contact with customers and co-workers. A cashier, for example, could be moved to a restocking job, if it’s appropriate and the worker agrees to the new role.
  • Follow CDC guidance on air and water systems in facilities reopening after a prolonged shutdown. This includes following the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ Standard 180-2018, which establishes minimum requirements for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning inspection and maintenance.
  • Delegate authority so local offices or branches can react based on regional COVID-19 conditions, which vary by state. This will ensure local teams have a stake in how they respond appropriately.
  • Increase the outdoor air ventilation rate or total ventilation rate to improve central air filtration to the highest level possible that doesn’t impact overall airflow.
  • Remove items that create traffic, such as coffee machines and bulk snacks.
  • Allow more flexibility for time off and paid sick leave so employees who have to care for children or sick relatives can adjust their schedules accordingly.
  • Focus on proper and regular cleaning and disinfection of high-traffic and high-touch areas.
  • Regularly include workers and labor unions in safety discussions.

“Above all, keep communicating and provide those necessary flexibilities (for workers),” Chosewood said.

COVID-19 pandemic: OSHA answers FAQs on protecting workers

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Photo: Maica/iStockphoto

Washington — OSHA has published on its website answers to more than 40 frequently asked questions on protecting workers from exposure to COVID-19.

Based on inquiries received from the public, the FAQs cover a wide range of topics, including testing, cleaning and disinfection, employer requirements, personal protective equipment, returning to work, training, and worker protection concerns.

“OSHA is committed to giving employers and workers the information they need to work safely in this rapidly changing situation,” acting OSHA administrator Loren Sweatt said in a July 2 press release.

The FAQ guidance is part of a series of OSHA publications on COVID-19. The agency previously issued guidelines on preparing workplaces for COVID-19 and returning to work.

Assessing COVID-19 hazards, controls in manufacturing facilities: CDC publishes toolkit

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Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Atlanta — A new toolkit from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is designed to help workplace safety and health professionals and public health officials assess manufacturing facilities’ COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures.

The toolkit includes a checklist to “determine whether control measures in place align with CDC/OSHA guidance.” CDC recommends conducting a checklist assessment when a COVID-19 control plan is developed and each time it’s revised. The assessment should include these steps:
Pre-assessment: Inform all parties of the assessment’s goals. Work as a group to review the checklist to determine if each part applies to your company.
Walkthrough: While conducting the walkthrough of a facility, use the checklist to document what you find. Observe as much of the plant processes as possible. Limit participation to those familiar with plant processes.
Post-assessment: After conducting the assessment, discuss observations, develop action items, determine steps to protect workers, and prioritize actions to take to control and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Other resources are quick reference slides for safety pros and health officials, as well as quick reference guides in the form of one-page flyers for employers and employees. The toolkit also can be used to assess manufacturing facilities’ overall hazard assessment and control plans.

CDC says the guidance will be updated “as needed and as additional information becomes available.”

U.S. Department of Labor Using Public Service Announcements and Billboards to Promote Worker Safety and Health Amid Coronavirus

WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has undertaken a public service messaging effort to remind workers that the agency is committed to ensuring their safety and health during the coronavirus pandemic.

OSHA is using public service audio announcements in English and Spanish, as well as bilingual digital and print billboard messaging, to encourage employees to contact OSHA with their concerns about workplace safety amid the coronavirus pandemic. Billboards will appear in states under federal OSHA jurisdiction.

The billboards and announcements are OSHA’s latest efforts to educate and protect American workers and help employers provide healthy workplaces as the coronavirus pandemic evolves. OSHA has published numerous alerts and advisories for various industries, including Guidance on Returning to Work, which assists employers as they reopen businesses and employees return to work.

Visit OSHA’s COVID-19 webpage frequently for updates. For further information about coronavirus, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. Department of Labor Issues Guidance to Employers to Help Protect Oil and Gas Workers During the Coronavirus Pandemic

WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released coronavirus-related guidance to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus for oil and gas workers.

Employers with workers engaged in the oil and gas industry should remain alert to changing conditions, and implement infection prevention measures accordingly. The guidance includes information regarding:

  • Deferring work requiring close contact with others, if that work can be postponed;
  • Configuring communal work environments so that workers are spaced at least 6 feet apart;
  • Staggering workers’ arrival, break and departure times;
  • Ensuring adequate ventilation in work areas to help minimize potential exposures;
  • Implementing other appropriate engineering, administrative and work practice controls, and use of appropriate personal protective equipment; and
  • Encourage workers to wear face coverings as a source control to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

Visit OSHA’s coronavirus webpage frequently for updates. For further information about the coronavirus, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

OSHA moves National Safety Stand-Down to September

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Photo: OSHA

Washington — OSHA has rescheduled the seventh annual National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction for Sept. 14-18.

The event initially was set for May 4-8, but was postponed March 27 over concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It now will coincide with Construction Safety Week, which also was recently rescheduled for Sept. 14-18.

Speaking during a July 2 webinar hosted by CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training, OSHA Directorate of Construction Director Scott Ketcham said the agency and its partners in the stand-down – NIOSH and CPWR – “are going to be working on getting information out to you as stakeholders on how to do a falls stand-down in a COVID environment” that includes physical distancing and other precautionary measures.

Falls are among the leading causes of fatal workplace injuries among construction workers. OSHA “encourages employers to remain vigilant and to use all available resources to enhance worker safety.” According to the agency, millions of construction workers have participated in the campaign since the stand-down began in 2014, with events having occurred in all 50 states and internationally.

COVID-19 pandemic: FMCSA extends waiver for certain preemployment drug tests

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Photo: DakotaSmith/iStockphoto

Washington — The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has granted to recently furloughed commercial motor vehicle drivers a 90-day waiver from certain preemployment drug testing requirements, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Effective June 5 and set to expire Sept. 30, the waiver amends current regulations requiring drivers to undergo preemployment drug testing and produce a negative test result to their employer before performing safety-sensitive functions, which includes operating a CMV. The regulation offers an exception to drivers who have participated in a testing program within the past 30 days and either:

  • Were tested for controlled substances within the past six months
  • Participated in the random controlled substances testing program for the previous 12 months.

Under the waiver, the exemption period is extended to 90 days from 30.

“As employers begin to recall drivers who were furloughed, laid off or otherwise not working for the company for more than 30 days, the cost and logistical barriers of testing a large influx of drivers in a short time frame are significant, at a time when the commercial trucking and motor coach industry is facing unprecedented economic challenges,” the waiver states. “This problem is further compounded by the reduced availability of controlled substances testing resources due to continued facility closures or other testing impediments caused by the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

FMCSA says offering “temporary regulatory relief from this burden” is possible “without negatively impacting safety.” Further, the agency “reserves the right to revoke” the waiver as a result of drivers’ involvement in incidents or employers’ inability to comply with terms.

The waiver comes in response to President Donald Trump’s Executive Order No. 13924 – Regulatory Relief to Support Economic Recovery, issued May 19.

Ladder safety during the COVID-19 pandemic: Association releases guidance

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Photo: Zephyr18/iStockphoto

Glasgow, Scotland — More regular deep cleaning of ladders are among the tips the Ladder Association has developed for employers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The free online resource cites as the basis of its recommendation a study, published in April in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) can live on stainless steel or plastic ladders for up to 72 hours.

Employers should communicate measures they’re taking to protect workers, remind employees about proper hygiene practices and encourage workers to stay at least 6 feet away from others. Because physical distancing can be difficult to practice when multiple people are needed to perform certain ladder tasks, including stabilizing and raising the equipment, the association has tips for employers to consider for these activities. Employers also should perform risk assessments and review rescue plans.

“Keeping ladder users safe now means protecting them from coronavirus as well as falls and other injuries,” Gail Hounslea, chair of the Ladder Association and managing director of the Ladderstore, said in a June 12 press release. “Businesses are facing the unprecedented challenge of getting people safely back to work during a pandemic. Ladders are only a small part of what they’ve got to consider, but we realized we could use our expertise to support all those whose workers will be heading back up ladders and need to ensure every safety aspect is covered.”

COVID-19 pandemic: House Democrats call for stronger guidelines for federal workers

Washington — Federal employees need more comprehensive guidance from the Office of Personnel Management before they return to the workplace amid the COVID-19 pandemic, House Democrats contended during a June 25 virtual hearing convened by the House Government Operations Subcommittee.

“This hearing is about ensuring federal agencies have plans and necessary resources to enable continuity of operations throughout the pandemic,” Connolly said. “This hearing is about ensuring the thousands of federal workers who have contracted the coronavirus are respected.”

Lorraine M. Martin, CEO and president of the National Safety Council and one of four witnesses testifying during the hearing, said the federal government “can set the example.” Such an example, Martin said, would follow “all the guidance from health organizations” as well as large multinational companies that “have very detailed playbooks on how to bring their folks back to work and when to bring them back.”

NSC launched its SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns initiative in May to help employers understand all the needed steps and considerations for bringing employees back to the workplace. Martin highlighted a new SAFER resource: the Organizational Vulnerability Assessment tool, which organizations can use to get “tailored recommendations.”

The subcommittee’s Republicans want the federal government to stay away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Two subcommittee members pointed to Internal Revenue Service office closures, which they say have slowed the issuance of tax refunds.

In contrast, Jacqueline Simon, national policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, called on federal workplaces to delay bringing workers back until “agencies have the full capacity to test, protect, trace and inform their workforces, and unless and until genuine, objective data on the status of the pandemic shows it has subsided.”

Simon also noted the success of remote work during the pandemic. “Since so many have been successfully teleworking throughout the pandemic, I inevitably ask why the rush to return?” she asked.

J. Christopher Mihm, managing director for strategic issues in the Government Accountability Office, added that “agencies’ experiences with telework during the global pandemic suggest opportunities for increased availability of telework in the future.”

Mihm also called for strengthened two-way communication, especially listening to and addressing employees’ concerns, as well as cooperation and information sharing among agencies in the same geographic areas.

Martin said telework by at least some employees in organizations – already a trend before the pandemic – likely is “here to stay.”

“Our country and its citizens have all experienced great trauma because of the coronavirus,” Martin said. “Worrying about one’s safety and well-being at work should not be needlessly added to this burden.”

A safer reopening: 10 actions to take

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As many employees begin returning to a more typical work environment, employers must remember to prioritize safety. Here are 10 steps the National Safety Council – based on recommendations from its SAFER task force – says employers should take before reopening:
  1. Phasing. Create a phased transition to return to work aligned with risk and exposure levels.
  2. Sanitize. Disinfect the workplace and make any alterations needed so employees can easily practice physical distancing.
  3. Screenings. Develop a health status screening process for all employees.
  4. Hygiene. Create a plan for handling employees who get sick, and encourage good hygiene.
  5. Tracing. If workers get sick, follow proper contact tracing steps to curb the spread of COVID-19.
  6. Mental health. Commit to supporting the mental and emotional health of your workers by sharing support resources and policies.
  7. Training. Train leaders and supervisors at your organization on the fundamentals of safety. These fundamentals include risk assessment and hazard recognition, as well as the mental and wellness-related impacts of COVID-19. Your employees will feel the effects of the pandemic long after it’s over.
  8. Engagement plan. Notify employees in advance of the return to their pre-coronavirus workplace. Consider categorizing workers into different groups based on job roles and bringing back groups or departments one at a time.
  9. Communication. Create a communication plan that involves being open and transparent with workers about returning to work.
  10. Assessment. Outline the main factors you’re using as guidance to provide a simple structure for the extremely complex return-to-work decision.

SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns – a group of experts from companies of all sizes, leading safety organizations, nonprofits, government agencies and public health organizations – is the first national task force focused on worker safety.

For more information, go to nsc.org/safer.