On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. WHO, ECDC (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control), CDC ( Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and HSE (Health and Safety Executive) have been closely monitoring this outbreak and providing risk assessments. All sections of the society including businesses and employers must play a role if we are to stop the spread of this disease.
This guidance will assist businesses and employers in providing advice to staff in non-healthcare settings on the novel coronavirus, how to prevent the spread of infection, what to do if someone suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 has been in the workplace, and advice on travel and meetings.
COVID-19: It is a new strain of coronavirus first identified in Wuhan city, China in January 2020. The incubation period of COVID-19 is between 2-14 days. This means that if a person remains well 14 days after contact with someone with confirmed coronavirus, they have not been infected.
The symptoms may develop in the 14 days after exposure to someone who has COVID-19 infection. Symptoms include sore throat, dry cough, and difficulty in breathing, fever, and tiredness. People with weak immune systems, old age, and long-term conditions like hypertension, diabetes, or chronic lung diseases are more prone to this infection and can show severe symptoms.
The spread of the COVID-19 infection can most likely happen when there is close contact with the infected person when coughs or sneezes produce droplets that contain the virus. These droplets are the main means of transmission.
The two main routes by which the people spread COVID-19 are spreading the infection to people who are nearby (within 2 meters) such that droplets could be inhaled into lungs and it is possible to become infected by touching the surface, objects, or the hand of the infected person. The objects may have respiratory secretions that the normal person can touch and then he or she touches the hand to their own mouth, nose, or eyes.
How long the virus survives depends upon a number of factors such as what surface the virus is on, whether it is exposed to sunlight, exposure to cleaning products, and differences in temperature and humidity. Under most circumstances, the survival chances decrease after 72 hrs.
Getting your workplace ready:
The businesses and employers should make a plan to prepare the organization for the possibility of an outbreak of COVID-19 in its workplace, should address how to keep business running with the only required number of employees, contractors, and suppliers coming to the office and inform this plans to all workers, contractors, and representatives of various allied departments.
Emphasis should be on following mandatory rules of hygiene and staying away from work even if they have mild symptoms of infection or have had to take medications to mask the symptoms. The plan should also address the sick leave arrangements, mental health, and social consequences of a case of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Preventing the spread of infection:
This is currently no vaccine available for COVID-19. Hence “Prevention is better than cure”. All preventive measures described below should be strictly followed now to decrease the risk and spread of infection:
Conduct online meetings with employees before they join the workplace and brief them about the condition of COVID-19 world-wide and in the community. Inform the employees about the plan made to successfully avoid infection and keep the business running. Also, discuss openly the problems which may probably arise while trying to implement the plan.
Make travel arrangements for employees if possible by company buses. Make sure the buses or mode of transport is disinfected after every trip. Encourage employees to either take company mode of transport or travel by their own vehicle and avoid public transport. Please ensure you follow social distancing while traveling as well.
Place posters in company buses, exit and entry gates, workplace cabins, toilets, and in corridors emphasizing sneeze etiquettes, hand hygiene and disinfecting workplace areas, Social Distancing Norms, Meeting Etiquettes, food & personal hygiene.
Following steps to be taken to resume the operations at workplaces:
1) It should be made mandatory to wear the mask by the employees and workers.
2) Check the temperature of employees with a thermal thermometer device to ensure employees are not carrying any infection.
3) Provide employees with tissues and waste bins lined with plastic bags so that they can be emptied without contacting the contents.
4) Provide soap and water or alcohol-based hand rubs in multiple locations at the workplace and in common areas to encourage hand hygiene. Instruct employees and workers to clean hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
5) Along with routine environmental cleaning, special efforts should be taken to clean the workstations, countertops, and door handles. Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces such as doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks can be wiped by employees as well as workers.
6) Brief the employees and workers and in some cases, contractors and customers that anyone with even a mild cough or low-grade fever needs to stay home. They should join the workplace after getting a certificate from a registered medical practitioner.
7) If it is feasible for the business, promote teleworking across an organization, and allow employees to work flexible hours to minimize crowding at the workplace.
8) Encourage employees to eat food at their desks or workstation. Make tea/coffee available at the desk. Make the employees aware of the benefits of eating healthy food and avoid eating any such products which will cause cough, cold, and fever. Conduct webinars on nutrition and exercise, mental health, and social wellbeing.
Care to be taken while organizing meetings:
1) Develop a preparedness plan to prevent infection at your meeting.
2) Consider whether a face-to-face meeting or event is needed. Could it be replaced by a teleconference or online event?
3) Could the meeting be scaled down so that fewer people attend?
4) Ensure that the plan and meeting are communicated to health care authorities.
5) Make sure that all participants and organizers provide contact details (mobile number, email id, and address). State clearly that their contact details will be shared with local public health care authorities if any participant becomes ill with suspected infectious disease.
6) During the meeting provide information or a briefing preferably in writing and less orally.
7) Build trust, for example, avoids handshakes and say hello without touching.
8) Arrange seats with 2 meters of distance between each.
9) Provide dispensers of hand-rubs prominently around the venue along with dustbins.
10) Encourage participants to cover their faces while sneezing with tissue or crook of their elbow. Keep the venue well ventilated. If anyone feels unwell, follow your preparedness plan.
After the meeting, retain the details of the participants for at least one month. This will help the health authorities to trace people who may have been exposed to the infection if one or more participants become ill shortly after the event.
If someone attending the meeting or event was isolated as suspected COVID-19 case, the organizer should inform to all other participants. They should be advised to monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days.
Handling post, packages, or food packets: There is no perceived increase in risk for handling post or package. But hand sanitization is advisable.
Ms. Rajkumari Sahane. M.Pharm.
The writer is Research Associate in Pharmacology and is an academician with 15 years of research & teaching experience