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    Creating a Safe Workplace Amid COVID Concerns

    While we are not through the pandemic yet, the roll out of vaccinations has provided a light at the end of the tunnel. We are at a point where going back to the workplace is becoming a not-so-distant reality. And this is bringing with it a whole new set of challenges and anxieties. Many employees are still concerned about the possibility of contracting the virus. In fact, a recent KPMG study found that 54% of Canadians are afraid to return to the workplace due to how contagious the coronavirus is and 60% will refuse to go back if they feel that the workplace is unsafe. While owners and managers may feel a sense of urgency to get their business back to normal as soon as possible – for the good of their employees as well as themselves – there are guidelines and practises that should be implemented to ensure a safe return. It is important to note that these guidelines and practises need to consider not only the present and the imminent return of employees, but also the near and distant future. While we will eventually ride out this pandemic, it will forever change how we deal with safety and sanitization in the workplace.

    Let’s look at COVID-19 workplace safety from three different angles – assuming that wearing masks and washing hands are a given: changing the way you work, hygiene practises, and employee well-being.

    1. Changing the way you work
      Surely you have learned a lot of lessons thus far from the pandemic in terms of turning to new work processes. You could think about a phased approach to bringing employees back. Perhaps one department at a time. Maybe some people should continue to work from home, at least part of the time, to reduce space needed and accommodate social distancing for those who will return, and to limit the number of people in your building at one time. You could also consider staggering working hours so people have different start/stop times and lunch hours to reduce numbers in lunch rooms and other common areas. You might even look into staggering the work week – some employees work Monday to Friday while others work Wednesday to Sunday, for example – for the same reasons. You might find some of your employees appreciate the flexibility. And, even though you are back in the office, it might make sense to continue having meetings online or on the phone as much as possible unless a face-to-face is absolutely necessary. All of these actions provide that extra layer of protection.
    2. Sanitization and cleanliness
      Canadian HRReporter.com shows 22% of respondents name sanitization and cleanliness as a major concern surrounding returning to the physical workspace. Fortunately there are many easy to find, easy to use products to combat the virus throughout your office. A simple search will show you a wide array of organic sprays and fogging solutions as well as time-tested UV-C lighting options to help stop the spread of the virus. Areas you should concentrate on include:
    1. All high-touch, hard surfaces like interior and exterior door handles, desk tops, light switches, lunch room refrigerator and microwave handles and table tops, elevator buttons, and the list goes on. Really any hard surface that lots of different people will come into contact with. This is not an exhaustive list and will vary greatly by the type of business.
    2. In the air. There have been several articles lately suggesting that we are not dealing effectively with the threat of airborne spread by the virus. The best way to deal with this is with effective air filtration, and the best air filtration might be UV-C lighting technology. UV-C lighting is not safe on humans but there are many lights and filters with the technology to automatically shut off when a person (or pet) enters the room. There are also UV-C lights that draw in the air to filter behind the light for filtration and, therefore, can be on and working all the time. Where do you want this air filtration? Everywhere. But especially in shared or enclosed spaces like boardrooms and reception areas.
    3. Bathrooms. These are germ factories at the best of times. But there are a couple of ways you can go to keep them clean. First, you can sanitize all of the fixtures – sink, toilet, soap dispensers, hand driers, etc. – with antibacterial spray or fogs on a regular basis. Second, you could choose to go with touchless fixtures like taps that turn on when you run your hands under them, motion detecting toilet flushers, etc. Thirdly, or in conjunction with the aforementioned options, you could install motion sensor UV-C lights that completely disinfect the space as soon as it is empty.
    I am going to lump Social Distancing and Self-screening under Sanitization and Cleanliness as they are both important components in stopping the spread of the Coronavirus.

    1. Social distancing is still a necessary component in the defense against virus spread even after we have deemed it safe to go back to your workspace, even though you will be wearing masks. As I mentioned earlier, every act adds another layer of protection. You will need to reassess where desks go, and copier rooms and conference rooms and meeting spaces etc., to ensure they allow for six feet between employees. Hallways need to be marked at six foot intervals with arrows depicting where the flow of traffic is to go to help people maintain their space.
    2. Self-assessing. Maybe the biggest measure you can take is trying to make sure the virus never ends up at your office in the first place. Employees should self-assess every morning, and if they show any symptoms of the virus they should stay home. Symptoms of the virus include fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, loss of taste or smell, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting.

    Symptoms can range from very mild to severe. In about 80% of patients, COVID-19 causes only mild symptoms.

    1. Employee well-being
      While returning to the workplace may seem like a step towards normalcy, do not assume that will take care of the anxiety the pandemic has caused. In fact, returning to normal, without really understanding what that normal is, might cause even greater anxiety. It is essential that you communicate openly with your staff about this anxiety, and implement programs that show you are ready and eager to help them cope with it. Programs should promote things like:
    1. Regular exercise can help release endorphins (natural substances that help you feel better and maintain a positive attitude).
    2. Healthy eating The best way to combat stress eating is to be aware of what triggers it, and be ready to fight the urge.
    3. Tuning it out. While it’s important to stay informed of the latest developments, the ever-changing nature of the news can get overwhelming. Find a balance of exposure to news that works for you and, whenever possible, disconnect physically and mentally.
    4. Getting enough sleep. It’s important that people get the recommended amount of sleep to help them stay focused on work and on managing the stress the current outbreak can bring. Experts recommend avoiding alcohol and stimulants like caffeine and nicotine before bed.
    It looks like many places are on the verge of getting people back to the workplace. If we’ve learned anything during this pandemic it’s that things can change in an instant. Well, whether we’re going back to work next week or six months from now, we need to get ready. It’s time to take a close look at our office policies, procedures and structures, our sanitization protocols, and how to continue to protect and take care of our employees. It all seems so overwhelming. Careful planning can relieve some of the stress and anxiety, and there are plenty of companies you can search up to look to for help.

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