How to Tell if It’s Safe to Return to Your Place of Employment

Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
safe workplace coworkers

As states are at various stages or reopening, or shutting down again, many of us are facing the prospect of returning to our jobs — while of course, essential workers have been working right through the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether we’re heading onto a factory floor or into a reopening restaurant or bar, office or coworking space, we all may need some reassurance that our workplace will be safe.

Indeed, uncertainty has been the recurring theme of this moment — indeed we can never be completely certain when we’re not isolating at home — but there are some best practices and procedures that can be implemented to make sure we’re as physically and mentally safe as possible. In this guide we’ll help answer the question of whether your place of employment is safe to return to.

Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility

Unfortunately, there is simply nowhere in the world right now that is 100% safe. “But, I think we can look for ways that maximize our potential to stay safe,” says Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC. “Physically, mentally, and emotionally — all workplaces depend on the community investment.”

Tackling the virus is most effective when we all take the necessary precautions, like wearing masks in public, and social distancing — this is just as true while we’re at work.

“A pandemic is new for everyone, workplaces included,” says Rice. “There are more general safety precautions that we can all take: wearing masks, washing hands, keeping our hands off of our face, and staying home if we have any symptoms. But each workplace will interpret safety standards in their own way. We can control our own precautions, but not that of all other environments.”

CDC’s Guidelines for Businesses

While we can only take responsibility for our own personal actions, there are standard protocols that each workplace should adhere to. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have released guidelines so you can see if your place of employment is following the rules.

In overview, the guidelines include:

  • Implementing physical distance between employees and customers
  • Wearing face coverings whenever possible
  • Using personal protective equipment (PPE) if appropriate or required for the role
  • Regularly disinfecting surfaces that are frequently touched by many people (such as phones, door handles, and light switches)
  • Handwashing breaks, with easily accessible handwashing stations
  • Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol made available if handwashing is not immediately possible
  • Daily temperature checks for fever and other and symptom checks
  • Improving building ventilation
  • Encouraging sick employees to stay home
  • Exploring whether flexible working hours (i.e. staggered shifts) and locations (i.e. working from home) is possible
  • Discouraging staff from using other workers’ phones / desks / equipment
  • Implementing flexible sick leave policies

The CDC also has a helpful FAQ you can check out for answers to specific questions such as “are cloth face coverings the same as PPE?” (spoiler: no, they’re not), and “how often should employees wash their hands?”

Start With a Plan

Employers should have a written plan and protocol in place. Peter Dooley, MS CIH CSP, is the safety and health senior project coordinator for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

He told Healthline: “[The plan] should outline how they will protect workers from getting infected with the virus. It needs to have input from workers and be a living document that can be constantly updated.” Because this is a novel virus and scientists are constantly learning more about how it behaves and how to protect ourselves, the health protocols should be robust and dynamic.

The CDC also recommends that employers have a plan specific to your workplace that identifies all areas and tasks that bear potential exposure to the virus. It states that managers should talk with their staff about the changes and solicit their input — which can be a good way for you to have your say and to get a good overview of what your workplace is doing to keep you safe.

There should also be a “workplace coordinator,” someone who takes responsibility for COVID-19 issues and their impact at work.

Physical Distance Is Key

You’re probably sick of hearing this term by now, but physical distancing really is crucial. It’s not always possible in every line of work, but your employer should be allowing for distance wherever they can.

According to Matthew Freeman, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of environmental health, epidemiology, and global health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, distancing is the most important safeguard.

He told Healthline: “The general rule of thumb should be the more space and distance the better between employees, and certainly between customers and employees.”

Some workplaces, such as factories, might be able to install plexiglass barriers. While others, like restaurants, won’t always be able to maintain the six-feet distance, in which case face coverings are even more important.

Mental Wellbeing is Just as Important as Physical Health

Of course, it’s not only our physical health that we need to look out for when working during the time of COVID.

“Not only take the physical precautions, but also strive to make the workplace culture one that looks out for each other’s emotional and mental wellbeing and takes an approach that’s bigger than our individual selves,” advises Rice. “Pushing the importance of paying it forward benefits both the individual and the community.”

Boundaries are crucial in fostering this compassion and empathy. “Knowing that we can’t control other people’s response to the pandemic, we can certainly set boundaries on what we allow into our space and we can also create distance as needed,” says Rice.

“Boundaries can be as simple as rerouting the conversation or the environments that make us feel trapped, or as complicated as telling others that we feel sad because of their response to our need for safety and wellbeing.”

Returning to work after lockdown may mean different things for your mental health — you may experience fear, anxiety and sadness. All are valid, and everyone experiences different emotions at their own pace. Mindfulness, breathing exercises and speaking to a licensed therapist are all helpful.

Don’t Go It Alone

Rice reiterates the importance of a collective outlook. She says that this is a great time to encourage people to reach out to others, while still maintaining social distancing. “Reach out to professionals, friends, and loved ones, as it’s important that you and they have a safe spot to vent about hurdles. Encouraging employees to avoid total isolation will also contribute to more productive thoughts, more positive feelings, and higher work performance.”

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