COVID-19 Outbreak: 6 Essential Elements to Consider When Planning For Employee Health Management

Employee Health Management

With over 100,000 confirmed cases across 70+ countries worldwide, and the number of infections seemingly increasing every day, COVID-19 shows no signs of slowing down.  And as organizations and governments continue to assess the human and economic impacts caused by the virus’ spread, it has thrust the importance of pandemic and contingency planning to the forefront.  But with so many things that need to be considered and actioned to blunt COVID-19’s impact on your business, the task can seem daunting.  That’s why now is the time to invest in environmental, health, safety and quality management (EHSQ) software.

What benefits can EHS software bring to your pandemic and business continuity planning efforts?  Let’s take a brief look at some of the things your organization should be considering as you plan your response to COVID-19:

Travel Clearance

Heavily interconnected global production and supply chains require many individuals to travel for business.  Active COVID-19 outbreaks around the world, however, are forcing organizations to reconsider not only whether such travel is necessary, but how to protect their people who work abroad through employee health management systems.  Public health agencies are issuing updated travel advisories seemingly on a daily basis.  But how is this data impacting your organization’s decisions on permitted business travel? 

If you’re relying on your employees (or their managers) remembering to update Health and Safety / Risk Groups on their travel plans, it creates the potential for someone to slip through the cracks and arrive at their destination without knowing how to protect themselves from infection. 

EHSQ software that enables businesses the ability to track, assess and approve their employees’ travel plans ahead of departure drastically reduces the chances of someone being needlessly placed in harm’s way.  These features enable easy sharing of pertinent travel advisories and restrictions, so employees know exactly how they can reduce their risk of infection.  An automated travel clearance process can even be tied to your company’s immunization program, ensuring that your people receive necessary vaccinations before they are allowed to travel.  Software gives you the assurance that reasonable checks occur well in advance of business trips, and not at the last minute as your employee rushes off to the airport.

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Respirator Fit Testing

Have you noticed a change in street fashion lately? Since COVID-19 transmission occurs via respiratory droplets produced when sneezing or coughing, average citizens are increasingly using surgical masks and respirators during their daily commutes and when in public spaces. In fact, global demand is so high for respirators that the World Health Organization (WHO) is now warning that front-line health care workers may be placed at increased risk due to a shortage of protective equipment.

For organizations, this creates a very practical challenge when it comes to employee health management – shortages may force them to order respirators not previously used, which in turn will require additional fit testing to ensure workers are appropriately protected. Companies that rely on paper-based systems to identify which respirator a worker is approved to wear will be hard-pressed to keep up with new fit-testing demands, especially if recurring shortages require constant product or vendor changes.  Ultimately, this could result in workers not wearing the right respirator, or wearing a poorly fitted one, increasing their exposures to potentially-harmful workplace agents. A solid absence management system will need to be in place to account for absences, but also to track which newly returned employees have not had proper respirator fittings done.

Organizations that employ software to track, schedule and record respirator fit-testing requirements, and include an absence management system, are much better prepared to absorb the impact that unintended product changes and supply chain disruptions can have on their ability to protect workers.  Software provides flexibility not available to businesses using emails, paper forms and spreadsheets to manage their fit-testing requirements.  Integrated workflows mean that changes to protective equipment can automatically trigger additional fit-testing appointments, and auto-generated email or SMS text message notifications will ensure workers and supervisors alike are well aware when testing is needed based on equipment changes.

Exposure Detection and Control

US Centers of Disease Control (CDC) recommends that anyone showing signs of respiratory illness, or who may have been exposed to someone confirmed to have COVID-19, should isolate themselves at home until diagnostic tests rule out infection or when local health officials advise.  While this makes perfect sense, it poses a practical issue for businesses:  what can organizations do to help identify employees at greatest risk of infection, so steps can be taken to reduce the risk of virus transmission at work?

Asking supervisors to call every employee at home before each shift to confirm they aren’t showing signs of illness just isn’t practical, nor is it effective employee health management.  And physically checking the health of employees as they enter the workplace only increases the risk of exposure. 

EHSQ software offers a different solution.  Employers can use advanced logic to auto-enroll workers into Similar Exposure Groups (SEGs) based on their unique exposure risks.  Once enrolled, the system can be configured to send digital “health check” questionnaires to employees that they can complete from any smartphone or tablet.  Based on responses received, high-risk workers could be assigned to “self-isolate”, identified for increased monitoring or clinic testing to rule out infection, or even assigned specific training courses to reduce the risk of infection. Most importantly, data linked to SEGs can be further scrutinized using data analytics tools that may help identify patterns of infection or transmission “hot spots” that could help organizations make better decisions to control the virus’ spread.  Trying to manage this volume of data with simple spreadsheets is an exercise in futility, taking far more time than you have.

One thing that all businesses must be mindful of when it comes to exposure and transmission, is that it could occur when an employee goes home. Their families, whether immediate or extended could be exposed to the virus and become ill. This falls under the jurisdiction of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which means that FMLA management must be another component of any contingency plans. FMLA management is a very necessary consideration, as a sick child and lack of childcare might mean that an employee must stay home from work, or if exposed at work might infect a loved one.

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Sanitization and Hygiene Practices

While WHO remains uncertain how long the COVID-19 virus can survive on surfaces, studies are suggesting that it may behave similar to other coronavirus strains, in which case it may persist on surfaces anywhere from several hours to several days.  A recent literature review found that, on average, strains from this coronavirus family may survive up to 5 days on materials including wood, paper, plastic, metal and glass.  Consequently, this means that organizations need to consider the extent and frequency that surfaces are disinfected and sanitized to help limit the spread of the virus within their workplaces.

Automating recurring maintenance and housekeeping tasks, inspections, and audits through EHSQ software enables organizations to easily monitor whether critical sanitization practices are occurring at their required frequencies, and most importantly, whether these practices are effective at reducing rates of infection.  Associated reporting and analytics features offered by software allow businesses to not only drive accountability to complete tasks needed to control the spread of COVID-19, but can also be used to detect critical resource gaps that could hinder its ability to minimize exposure.  Organizations simply cannot afford to rely on email chains or spreadsheets to keep track of all the things they need to be doing to control COVID-19’s spread.  Software provides a flexible platform to identify, assess and manage actions necessary to protect employee health.

Managing Employee Absence

Anxiety of COVID-19 is running high.  We may all now find ourselves casting suspicious glances at anyone who coughs or who may be showing signs of the sniffles. Many public health agencies and organizations, acting out of an abundance of caution, are advising individuals who are showing any signs of illness to remain home from work until their symptoms resolve, or in some cases, until they complete a designated “self-isolation” period.  In either case, businesses should anticipate an increase in employee absence in the weeks and months ahead.  Consequently, this will increase the need to track and manage absences, especially if illness is the result of an occupational exposure that could trigger workers’ compensation. With so many other actions needed to manage COVID-19 risks, organizations shouldn’t have to spend their time chasing after employees to understand why they are absent from work.

EHSQ software allows organizations to easily classify and track an employee absence, and to associate those absences to workplace exposures, when necessary, to help manage workers’ compensation costs and assist in the employee’s eventual return-to-work. This is made possible with an absence management system, along with integrated incident investigation and case management workflows which reduces the time spent to manage work-related illness, with many solutions able to auto-populate mandatory reporting forms for local or federal agencies. These intuitive tools help employers ensure that they remain compliant to applicable regulations – one less thing to worry about as you attempt to manage the fallout from COVID-19.

Contractor Management

When considering how to control the potential spread of any illness-causing agent at work, employers often fail to recognize the threat posed not by their own workers, but by the people they invite into the business. Contractors are a critical component of many organizations. They often possess specialized skills and knowledge not available in the business’ regular labor pool.  Simply cutting off use of contractors during an outbreak may not be practical, since it can seriously hinder your ability to service your customers.

That’s why any pandemic or contingency planning effort needs to consider how to assess the risks posed by anyone who may visit the workplace before they arrive, not just plan for employee health management.  Employers should evaluate how to include practical employee health screening into their contractor pre-qualification process, to be assured that contracted workers who may be showing signs of illness or who may have been exposed to COVID-19 are not dispatched to the workplace, where they could pass on the virus.  Organizations also need to ensure that contractors receive the same information concerning policies and protocols that must be followed when on their customers’ properties.

Automating the contractor pre-qualification process through EHS software enables businesses to leverage digital tools to pass along and receive valuable data to help assess the risks posed by contractors in advance of projects.  Assignment of digital questionnaires to contracted workers that can be completed via mobile device gives firms the ability to conduct reasonable health status checks and exclude contractors at elevated risk.  Moreover, many software solutions offer the ability for contractors to digitally “sign-in” when arriving on the job, allowing businesses to know who’s on-site, and to validate this person against their list of cleared workers, and to take immediate action if someone shows up that isn’t approved.  Depending on the scale of your business, number of operating locations, or volume of contractors used, attempting to keep track of all contractors at all times with paper-based systems may not be possible.  Allow EHS software to bear that burden for you.

Looking Ahead

No one knows when governments will finally get the upper hand on COVID-19 and slow its spread.  The WHO estimates that any vaccine to protect humans, if available, may be another 12-18 months away

So, organizations need to be thinking about what steps they can take right now to control the risk COVID-19 poses to their people and their business.  Yet, we need to also think beyond this virus.  In the past 20 years, the global community has been impacted by many other virus outbreaks including SARS, Swine Flu and Ebola, just to name a few.  We don’t know what surprises nature may have waiting for us, which is why risk-based pandemic and business continuity planning must start now.  And organizations who invest in EHS software will be better equipped to weather those storms, when and where they come.