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How to Lower the Risk of Coronavirus at Work

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo

As the pandemic rages on, there are steps business owners can take to keep employees safe in the workplace.

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge, business owners have to ensure they are protecting their staff and customers.
  • Engaging in a risk assessment and creating a response plan are the first steps in combating coronavirus in the workplace.
  • Pandemic fatigue has set in across the country, but business owners need to continue following safety protocols.
  • This article is for business owners who want to know how to protect their employees and customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With COVID-19 cases rising across much of the U.S., employers must do all they can to reduce the spread of the coronavirus among employees and customers. It takes only one COVID-positive employee to slow or shut down operations, and the cost of coronavirus in the workplace can be staggering: According to a recent study by the Integrated Benefits Institute, pandemic-driven employee absenteeism could end up costing $23 billion.

With mixed messages coming out of local, state and federal governments, it can be difficult for business owners to know the proper steps to take. Here's what business owners can do to reduce the spread of the virus as we head into the perilous winter months.

Risk of coronavirus in the workplace

Widespread business shutdowns in the spring and summer had a disastrous impact on small businesses across the country, and now business owners are bracing for another potential hit as the pandemic continues unabated.

But what's different this time is that we know more about the virus and how to slow the spread than we did back in the spring. That means there's less risk of shutdowns but more responsibility for businesses to protect their staff and customers.

"We used this sledgehammer approach early on when we should have used a scalpel approach," John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD, told Business News Daily. "It's very much a targeted strategy now. Businesses can't stay closed until April or May."

Every type of employer needs to take steps to protect their employees from coronavirus exposure. For certain businesses, the risks are greater, and thus the safety protocols are more arduous.

According to McKinsey & Co., there are 1.7 million small businesses, employing 20 million people and earning 12% of U.S. business revenue, that are at a greater risk because of the pandemic. They include gyms, shops, restaurants, bars, transportation and warehousing businesses, and companies serving the entertainment and educational markets. As such, the McKinsey analysis found, these businesses are at increased risk of permanent closures.

"People used to think we'd shut down for a couple of weeks and everything will be fine," said Tom Sullivan, vice president of small business policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "That's not how it works. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more urgency there is for these small business owners to survive."

Key takeaway: Employers must take added precautions to ensure workplace safety, as the cost of not doing so could be devastating. Small businesses at greater risk for pandemic-related impacts include gyms, shops, restaurants, bars, transportation and warehousing businesses, and education companies.

How to lower the risk of coronavirus at your workplace

Protecting staff and customers requires business owners to embrace a plethora of health and safety protocols. Here are the steps small business owners should take to reduce the risk of coronavirus in the workplace.

Create a COVID-19 preparedness-and-response plan.

One of the first steps in protecting employees is to create a plan that lays out the potential risks to your business from the coronavirus and your response in the event of an outbreak. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the plan should spell out the risks associated with work sites and tasks performed at those locations, considering the ages of your workers and their health.

If you run a retail business, you should assess the risk to customer-facing salesclerks and cashiers. If you operate a restaurant, the risk assessments should include wait staff, hosts and employees in the kitchen. And if you're running your business from an office, you need to understand how employees get to work and the risks associated with those transportation methods.

When assessing risk, think about scenarios in which employees would be exposed to the virus, such as when interacting with the public or co-workers in the office. By assessing your vulnerabilities, you can customize your response.

For example, "If the issue is public transportation, companies can stagger the hours so everyone isn't coming in on public transportation at 9 a.m.," Whyte said. "Some companies, if they have the funding, are providing other modes of transportation."

As part of your plan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends appointing an individual as the workplace coordinator to oversee COVID-19-related issues and the impact on the workplace.

The plan should include how you'll respond if there is a sick employee or reported case. That could mean switching to remote work for everyone or requiring the sick employee and anyone they encountered at work to quarantine.

Maintain social distancing.

As most people know by now, staying at least 6 feet apart from other people is an effective way to slow the spread of the coronavirus. However, social distancing is easier said than done for the many business owners who are working out of small shops and offices across the country.

"Social distancing is easier for some than others," said Robert Fowler, CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan. "It can be difficult among employees if the workplace isn't engineered that way."

If you can't maintain 6 feet of separation between staffers, Fowler said, you must build physical separations and make sure there aren't bottlenecks of traffic in the hallway.

To make social distancing easier, use clear signage and markings on the floor. Whether you are managing staff or trying to keep customers apart, it's important to have clear and easy-to-understand signage throughout your workplace. It should include markings where customers or employees stand and direct them through the building to maintain social distancing.

Avoid crowds in the breakroom by staggering breaks and rearranging the rooms to create distance between employees. The same goes for workstations and cubicles: Rework them to ensure distance, or install plexiglass partitions. You should also avoid having employees share phones, desks or computer equipment.

Require mask wearing.

Studies have shown that mask wearing, combined with social distancing, can reduce the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, many states have mandated mask wearing in public to help curb the spread.

In states that don't require masks, it may be difficult to get some customers to wear them inside your business. However, you can make it a rule for your employees and your vendors.

"You can make it a condition of employment," Fowler said. "At this point, employers can be fined by the state [Michigan] if employees aren't wearing PPE [personal protective equipment] properly."

Forcing customers to wear masks is a different story, as they aren't workers collecting paychecks from you. It's important to have signage noting your mask requirement, but you aren't required to confront someone or force them to mask up.

Whyte said there have been a lot of bad outcomes from such confrontations, so if a customer is not willing to wear a mask, come up with other ways for them to shop. That could mean offering to do the shopping for them and ringing them up outside, or providing access to delivery, online ordering and curbside pickup.

"What we've been saying is, try to accommodate them without them being in your store," Fowler said.

Promote handwashing and hand sanitizing.

Frequent handwashing and hand sanitizing, coupled with mask wearing and social distancing, are effective ways to lower your chances of spreading and contracting COVID-19 and should be encouraged at your workplace.

To ensure everyone is following those safety guidelines, blanket the office or workplace with hand sanitizer and signs reminding people to wash their hands. It's also important to give employees ample time to wash and dry their hands and to provide access to sinks, soap, water and hand towels.

Create a flexible sick policy.

An important part of keeping employees safe is having a flexible sick-leave policy that encourages workers to stay home if they don't feel well. Companies need to let go of the "work at all costs" attitude and remove any perceived stigmas from calling out sick. The sick policy should be communicated often to employees.

It's also a good idea to talk with employees to gauge who is more at risk. You may be able to implement a telecommuting plan for employees with underlying conditions or family members that need protection.

If an employee does get sick or show COVID-19 symptoms, they should be separated from other employees, customers and visitors and be sent home immediately, per CDC guidelines. Workers who develop symptoms outside of work should tell their supervisor and stay home, according to the CDC.

Make sure the sick employee follows the CDC's guidelines for returning to the workplace. It's also important to trace the sick employee's contacts within the workplace; anyone who had close contact with the sick employee should quarantine for 14 days as well.

Resist pandemic fatigue.

The pandemic has been devastating for so many people; understandably, everyone is fed up. Some people are letting their guard down, and that has led to a rise in cases in many areas. As it gets colder and people move inside, business owners must work to fight pandemic fatigue.

"A lot of folks have lost their patience with doing the things they were supposed to in March and April; there's a battle weariness now," Sullivan said. "If they want to continue to have good traffic in their shops, they have to break through that. It's a big responsibility, but given the choice, I'd take that responsibility over shutting down permanently."

Key takeaway: Business owners can do their part to keep employees safe by encouraging social distancing, mask wearing and handwashing; creating flexible sick policies; and not giving in to pandemic fatigue.

Image Credit: Drazen / Getty Images
Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo
Business News Daily Staff
Donna Fuscaldo is a senior finance writer at business.com and has more than two decades of experience writing about business borrowing, funding, and investing for publications including the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Bankrate, Investopedia, Motley Fool, and Foxbusiness.com. Most recently she was a senior contributor at Forbes covering the intersection of money and technology before joining business.com. Donna has carved out a name for herself in the finance and small business markets, writing hundreds of business articles offering advice, insightful analysis, and groundbreaking coverage. Her areas of focus at business.com include business loans, accounting, and retirement benefits.