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Experts say companies need to institute strict safety rules, such as physical distancing and ventilation, to keep employees healthy. Getty Images
  • Employees are expressing safety concerns as businesses start to reopen from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
  • Experts say companies should institute rules on physical distancing, personal protective equipment, ventilation, and cleaning to keep employees safe.
  • They note it’s also in the financial interest of companies to keep their employees healthy.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

“Our office was already planning to reopen, but we hadn’t been fitted for our N95 masks. There’s not enough personal protective equipment (PPE). We’re already being told we will have to reuse some of it.”

“We had no training, no new protocols in place. No one can tell us how we are going to contain the aerosolized spray from working on patients. How long can the virus linger in the air? “

Those concerns are from a 39-year-old dental hygienist from Southern California. She asked Healthline not to use her name.

The woman told Healthline that in the rush to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic, she and other hygienists worry that safety may be taking a back seat.

“I’m in the line of fire, but I also have a lot of elderly patients. They are in their 80s and 90s and not in the best of health,” she said.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released a set of guidelines for employers for their workplaces in this COVID-19 era.

But the hygienist says things are still confusing.

“Every agency I spoke with would point the finger at another… ‘No, that’s OSHA or that’s the health department,’” she said. “Everybody kept transferring me, and no one could give me clear answers to just basic information on restarting. That makes me very nervous.”

As of today, every state in the country will be in one phase or another of reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

Chances are if you haven’t gone back to work yet, you may soon be returning.

Employees at a Ford car manufacturing plant quickly learned this week how precarious that return can be.

The Chicago facility was temporarily closed Tuesday after two workers tested positive for the new coronavirus. The plant was reopened after work areas were cleaned and disinfected.

Whether you’re in a factory, dental office, restaurant, or department store, you may have concerns.

How do you know whether you’ll be safe?

What steps should your employer have taken to keep you safe?

We asked those questions to some experts.

Peter Dooley, MS, CIH, CSP, the safety and health senior project coordinator for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, says employers should have a written plan.

“It should outline how they will protect workers from getting infected with the virus,” he told Healthline. “It needs to have input from workers and be a living document that can be constantly updated.”

Matthew Freeman, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of environmental health, epidemiology, and global health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Georgia, says the most important safeguard is physical distancing.

“The general rule of thumb should be the more space and distance the better between employees, and certainly between customers and employees,” Freeman told Healthline.

What, for example, does that mean for safety precautions for restaurant workers?

Freeman says the preference would be outdoor seating for now. Once it’s deemed safe enough to phase in indoor dining, the tables need to be spaced apart.

“Waiters need to stand far enough away from customers to mitigate their risk. The restaurant could have patrons write down their order and hand it in rather than have a waiter take the order verbally, or order online beforehand,” he said.

“When orders are being taken and food is being served, both waiter and customer should have a face mask or face covering on,” added Dr. Larry Polsky, MPH, the health officer for Calvert County Health Department in Maryland. “Of course, that’s not feasible when people are eating.”

And what about if you’re working in a retail establishment like a department store? What safety rules should you look for?

“You want to keep at least a 6-foot distance. Both customers and workers should be wearing face coverings, and you want to minimize the amount that customers handle merchandise,” Polsky told Healthline.

“Some states are requiring physical barriers between work stations,” Polsky said. “But that’s a complex situation. Every industry, the variables are going to be different. Those companies should be working with industrial hygiene experts and getting recommendations to safeguard the environment in their factories.”

Some automakers have installed plexiglass barriers.

Ford is also providing its assembly workers with wristwatches that beep when employees get within 6 feet of each other.

Experts say employers may opt to bring workers back into a facility in phases, still allowing those who can work from home to do so.

That helps to reduce the density and improve air circulation.

“You want to increase the airflow within the space as much as possible to disperse any respiratory particles and dilute them in the air,” Freeman said.

“The employer should talk with whoever does their HVAC heating and air conditioning to see if there’s a way to increase airflow,” Polsky added. “They should be using the best quality air filters and make sure those filters are changed on a regular basis.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for how to both clean and disinfect workplace environments.

Additionally, experts say there should be easily accessible handwashing stations throughout the workplace.

Workers who are mobile should also have bottles of hand sanitizer to take with them.

“Businesses should be aware that obtaining disinfectants might be much more difficult than it has been in the past,” Polsky noted. “They should make sure they have a stock of supplies both for employees and for the cleaning they need to do, so that once they’re open they don’t put their customers or employees at risk.”

The same is true of the supply chain for personal protective equipment (PPE). Some items may still be hard to come by.

“If PPE is determined to be necessary to protect workers, then it’s the employer’s responsibility to provide them,” Dooley said.

He notes the employer has to have the right kind of equipment, the right fit, and enough to keep workers supplied.

The reopening of businesses will put these health and safety protocols to the test.

Will those new safety plans be enough? Are companies doing enough?

“By taking this seriously, you reduce potential losses to your business. In many ways, it’s a win-win to ensure that workers are safe,” Freeman said.

“Employers need to remember that if their workers get ill, even if it’s not life threatening, it still cripples their ability to keep their business open,” Polsky added.

“They have both a moral obligation to protect health and lives, but also the economic reality that if businesses try to take shortcuts, they can end up doing themselves a lot of financial harm,” he said.