Reopen your business confidently

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Dr. Joseph Allen provides tips and resources to help you safely reopen your businesses safely and efficiently.

Strategy to help you reopen

Navigating through uncertainty can be challenging, to say the least. So, when trying to identify how to reopen and get employees back to work amid COVID-19 – be it an office space or a retail location – applying known control strategies found in risk science and worker health and safety is a great place to start.

Healthy buildings expert and Harvard professor, Dr. Joseph Allen suggest starting with 5 simple controls; listed in order from most effective, to least.

Source: CDC.gov

Hierarchy of controls

  1. Eliminate the hazard – In the context of COVID-19, ask yourself, how do we prevent employees from contracting this? Maybe a work-from-home strategy solves this. Although it may not be possible for your business, start at the extreme before moving to the next control.
  2. Develop a substitution hierarchy – Identify the core people that need to return to work, versus those who do not. Who does your company need to keep your business functioning and who must be physically present? This is a great place to identify what administrative roles can continue to work from home. 
  3. Identify engineering controls – For those in building or office locations, the focus should start at identifying air quality. Start by asking about filtration levels used in the HVAC system and if those can be increased. Ensure a MERV-13 or the highest compatible filter is being used. Further, a quick win here can be as simple as finding a way to bring in more fresh, outdoor air.
  4. Enact administrative controls – Now that you have a hierarchy of who needs to return, plan for keeping them safe.
    • Intensify admission standards into you’re building
    • Develop plans for common space sanitation – like elevators or restrooms
    • Provide items to help prevent the spread – like hand sanitizer, tissues, touchless trash cans.
    • Identify where physical barriers (like plexiglass) are needed to help protect workers who interact with several visitors
    • Manage the flow of people during set times
    • Set limits for maximum number of people in your business
    • Set rules and create signage to aid in maintaining physical distance
  5. Enforce the use of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) – To ensure compliance, provide and establish procedures for wearing, cleaning and disposing of PPE, like masks, face shields or gloves.

Minimize exposure

In addition to these controls, minimizing the duration of direct contact with others can help minimize exposure. Think about reducing exposure in three parts – intensity, frequency, and duration.

To minimize intensity, create space. Use six-foot social distancing where possible along with PPE and other controls. Further, be cognizant of the frequency and duration of necessary interactions. Identify situations and whether you can minimize how often and how long you must be in close contact.

Health performance indicators

You have your controls in place, great! Now what? Well, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So, it’s important to verify that the controls you’re putting in place are working. Dr. Allen, recommends utilizing Health Performance Indicators as they help provide objective, actionable data.

A place to start is with monitoring the number of confirmed illness cases over a specific period – say two weeks. Use that as a baseline and continue to monitor weekly over the course of a month. With the goal of being case free or seeing a reduction in the number of cases of illness.

Another area of focus is the ventilation systems. It’s recommended that you do some real-time monitoring of air quality, not to test for the virus, but test for indicators of how your ventilation system is performing.

Develop a plan to regularly review performance to aid in how you evaluate and improve the control strategies you’ve put in place.

Manage controls in phases

When implementing controls, it’s a great idea to identify a phased plan to reopen. A phased return can help in mitigating the risk of resurgence.

In phase one, you should have the most restrictive controls in place. You’ll also want to have a clear plan for what criteria needs to be met to move to phase two and beyond. At each phase, monitor how you measure up against your baseline and goals. Identify what data will enable you can loosen up restrictions. For more details, the CDC provides some helpful guidelines and criteria for a three-phased approach to reopening.

Keep your employees and clients informed

One key to reopening your place of work is instilling confidence in your employees and clients. As you identify controls and develop plans, be sure to communicate honestly and frequently with your employees and clients. According to Dr. Allen, “constant and transparent communication can help build trust and reduce the fear of returning to a business location”.

For instance, if you’re a school, in addition to students, you need to communicate with parents, teachers and administrators. Same for a hospital, office or construction company – make sure to identify the different stakeholders and be transparent. Acknowledge what is known and unknown, and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.

Dr. Allen points out that “providing these communications is so important, because your stakeholders will be able to see visible controls, like masks, air purifiers, dividers, etc.  But no one can see other controls you’ve put in place, like higher ventilation rates. These are happening in your duct work – so unless you talk about it, they’re not going to know.” So, you need to ensure you communicate both visible and ‘invisible’ strategies, to help build confidence for employees and clients alike to return.

There is no such thing as zero risk

Keep in mind that these mitigation controls are a framework to minimize risk, not eliminate it. Further, they provide monitoring and measurement steps that helps build confidence in visitor safety. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as zero risk. The goal is to get to a place where you’re comfortable inviting people back into your business. If you layer enough of these defenses you can get to a place where people feel comfortable about returning.

Additional resources to help reopen

As you plan for a phased, safe reopening, you may find you have more questions. The CDC has a great resource to reopen your business. For industry specific information, visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Back to Work Safely page. Further, forhealth.org, has great resources developed by Dr. Allen and his constituents at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  Additionally, Dr. Allen provides a wealth of knowledge in his book – Healthy buildings Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity.   

Remember to check our ‘Back to Work’ series page often as we continue to provide useful, ‘snakable’ content to help you be prepared for the ‘new normal’.

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