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Creative Commons

As the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of vaccine mandates and COVID-19 cases skyrocket, with 17.4 million confirmed cases in the United States alone, the time is ripe for companies to revisit their industrial hygiene.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines industrial hygiene as “that science and art devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation and control of environmental factors and stresses arising in or from the workplace, which may cause sickness, impaired health and wellbeing, or discomfort among workers or among citizens of the community.”

Traditionally, industrial hygiene centered on chemical, physical and ergonomic hazards. But with COVID-19, a fourth concern—biological—bubbled to the surface. OSHA responded early in the pandemic with an online publication titled, “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19.” This publication contains a wealth of information and warrants a refresher as case counts grow.

Step One: Develop an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan

It’s hard to imagine any company has gone the last two years without implementing an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan. But when is the last time you reviewed yours?

These plans guide protective actions against COVID-19 and must evolve as science and health recommendations change. The plans should address risk levels for various worksites and job tasks. Consider where, how and to what sources of COVID-19 workers may get exposed to.

The guides also must regard workers’ individual risk factors such as chronic medical conditions, older age, pregnancy or immunocompromised conditions and put into effect controls that address these risks.

Step Two: Implement Basic Infection Control Measures

OSHA’s document advises employers emphasize basic infection prevention measures and implement good hygiene and infection control practices. Two years later, the advice still rings true, but your employees may need a reminder.

Companies can do their part by promoting frequent and thorough handwashing and providing plenty of places to wash up. In places where soap and running water are unavailable, provide alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol, advises OSHA.

OSHA also recommends encouraging respiratory etiquette, reminding workers to cover their coughs and sneezes, and encouraging workers to stay home if sick.

Remind workers not to use other workers’ phones, desks, offices or other work tools if they can avoid it.

Also, revisit your cleaning practices and make sure they are up to snuff. Maintain regular housekeeping practices, including routine cleaning and disinfection of surfaces, equipment and other elements in the work environment.

While OSHA recommends choosing EPA-approved cleaning chemicals, cleaning industry experts warn against selecting sanitizers and disinfectants that only kill COVID-19. “Selecting a product that kills COVID is a really low bar. COVID is an envelope virus that soap and water can destroy,” says Darrel Hicks, a recognized subject matter expert in infection prevention and control as it relates to cleaning. “A disinfectant that says it kills COVID may not be strong enough to kill other microorganisms. During cold and flu season, you want products that kill rhinovirus, enterovirus, RSV, and influenza A and B. Those viruses are harder to kill.”

Remember to follow the tech sheets that come with these products or they will not kill the microorganisms you want to destroy, adds Mike Sawchuk, a consultant and coach for the professional cleaning industry.

“It’s critical to follow dwell time (also known as wet time and contact time),” Sawchuk says. “If the label recommends a 10-minute contact time and they wait just eight minutes, the weakest pathogens are probably dead. But the ones that survive will create superbugs that can outlive disinfection.”

Step Three: Identify and Isolate the Sick

As cases rise, how is your company identifying and isolating the sick?

Perhaps it’s time to give employees a refresher on the signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Encourage self monitoring and make sure employees know what to do if they suspect possible exposure.

Should someone get sick at work, the OSHA guide recommends moving the potentially infectious person to a location away from other workers, customers and visitors. Once a test confirms COVID-19, having them stay home the duration of their quarantine, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently lowered from 10 days to five.

Step Four: Maintain a Flexible Workplace

How flexible are your sick leave policies? It’s also time to give them a second look.

Actively encourage sick employees to stay home with flexible and consistent sick leave policies that follow local health guidelines. OSHA recommends companies also maintain policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member.

Step 5: Engineering Controls

During a COVID-19 outbreak, it may not be possible to eliminate the hazard completely, but companies can implement workplace controls to reduce workers’ exposure to illness. 

Engineering controls isolate employees from work-related hazards. These efforts can be the most cost-effective to implement and include:

  • Installing high-efficiency air filters.
  • Increasing ventilation rates in the work environment.
  • Specialized negative pressure ventilation.

Step 7: Provide PPE

Companies also may need PPE to prevent exposure to COVID-19. Appropriate PPE varies depending on the workplace but can include gloves, goggles, face shields, face masks and respiratory protection.

When selecting PPE, make sure:

  • It fits the hazard, the worker and the task.
  • Is properly fitted and periodically refitted.
  • Gets worn as required.
  • Is regularly inspected, cleaned, stored or disposed of.

Step 8: Adjust Work Hours/Stagger Shifts

Monitor cases and if cases rise in your community, perhaps it’s time to implement flexible work hours or staggered shifts to increase physical distance between employees.

Following these steps won’t prevent an outbreak at your facility, but it can limit its impact. The pandemic has raged for two years, but it’s time to refresh your skills. Download the complete OSHA workplace guide at:  https://www.osha.gov/sites/default/files/publications/OSHA3990.pdf