COVID-19: Guidance helps Businesses Protect Workers and Communities
COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly around the world. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) urges businesses to protect workers and show their commitment to preventing the spread of this disease by following its guidance resources for the workplace
The COVID-19 situation changes day by day. But what can workplaces do in practice to help tackle this pandemic and protect employees? Knowledge and awareness are key — everyone must be well informed about how the virus spreads, the symptoms of infection and how to minimise exposure. Under the tagline, ‘Healthy Workplaces Stop the Pandemic’ EU-OSHA has started an initiative to address the occupational health and safety challenges linked to the current pandemic, offering a range of workplace guidance on COVID-19.
Resources include: EU guidance to limit the spread of the virus and on preventive measures for a safe and healthy return to workplaces; information on how to minimise exposure to biological agents; awareness-raising videos; practical guides, tools and visual resources for a healthy home-based telework and a range of links to good practice material from EU and international organisations.
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus, thought to have an incubation period of between 2 and 14 days. The main symptoms are coughing, breathing difficulties and fever. Older people and those with chronic health conditions (such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases) are more likely to suffer from severe symptoms.
Coronaviruses are spread by close person-to-person contact or by touching an infected surface and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth. Such viruses are thought to live on some surfaces for 72 hours, sometimes longer.
How can businesses help minimise the impact of COVID-19?
Employers have an important role to play in protecting workers, and in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the wider community. They should:
- revise the workplace risk assessment to ensure that distancing and hygienic measures can be taken, without additional risk to workers
- respect the hierarchy of control measures and prioritise technical and organisational over personal protection measures
- provide adequate PPE where it is needed in addition to technical and organisational arrangements
- encourage workers to wash hands frequently and thoroughly and provide hand washing facilities or hand disinfection liquids
- ensure that frequently touched surfaces are cleaned regularly
- provide disposable wipes, so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped before use
- emphasise the importance of employees staying away from work if they develop symptoms, even if mild
- enable home working and flexible working hours where feasible
- follow public health authority advice if someone with suspected COVID-19 has been in the workplace or travelling to an affected area.
- It is also important that businesses mitigate the impact of COVID-19 by developing contingency and business continuity plans. Plans should address how the business will keep running if workers or suppliers become ill or are affected by travel restrictions. They should also cover sick leave arrangements and any other support available for workers. Consulting these plans with workers and communicating with all others connected with the business — highlighting key points and making sure that everyone knows how the plan relates to them — is essential.
Back to the workplace - Adapting workplaces and protecting workers
Once the physical distancing measures achieve a sufficient reduction in COVID-19 transmission rates, national administrations are authorising a gradual resumption of work activities. This is being done stepwise, with work that is considered essential for health protection and the economy authorised first and work that can be done effectively while working from home last.
However, regardless of how and to what extent normal work activities resume, it is highly likely that some measures will remain in place for some time to avoid a steep increase in infection rates. Furthermore, it is also possible that an increase in infections at some point in the future will require a reintroduction of restrictive measures in some cases.
Appropriate preventive measures also help to achieve a safe and healthy return to work and contribute to suppressing transmission of COVID-19. EU-OSHA has produced occupational safety and health EU guidance to help in this process. These non-binding guidelines aim to help employers and workers to stay safe and healthy in a working environment that has changed significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They give advice on risk assessment and appropriate measures such as minimising exposure, resuming work, coping with absences and managing workers working from home. Workers’ involvement and taking care of those who have been ill is also included as well as information and further links for many sectors, occupations and countries.
COVID-19 is not the only risk
For some workers, exposure to infectious agents on a regular basis is the norm and, according to the 2015 European Working Conditions Survey, is on the rise, especially in healthcare and veterinary services, agriculture, sewage management and laboratories. Our recent review and five discussion papers explore the risks posed by biological agents in the workplace. We aim to raise awareness of exposure to these hazards at work and provide more information on the associated health problems, which include not only infectious diseases but also cancer and allergies.
In the current context of confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of European workers are forced to work from home full-time to cut down the risk of contracting the virus. A new reality that can take its toll on our health. Long periods of sedentary work, lack of physical exercise, working in isolation, blurring boundaries between paid work and private life and stress are some of the risks associated with telework that may have an impact on the musculoskeletal and mental health of workers.
EU-OSHA’s brand-new MSD database of practical tools and guidance makes it easy to assess and manage many MSD risks, including from telework. It contains links to resources from all across Europe: publications, case studies, guidance, practical tools, audio-visual materials. So far, more than 550 entries are available and regular updates will follow during the life of the current 2020-22 Healthy Workplaces Campaign Lighten the Load.
Working together is key to combatting COVID-19
The current COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest challenges that businesses — and indeed societies — have ever faced. Overcoming this challenge will be possible only if we work together to stop the spread of this disease — and guaranteeing safe and healthy working environments is vital to this.
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