As employees continue to work at manufacturing facilities during these times, sustaining the effort in participating and enforcing social distancing measures is still incredibly important to mitigate the risk of employees contracting COVID-19. As America and the rest of the world has seen, working in environments such as these without social distancing can lead to what are now known as super spreader events or workplace outbreaks.
With that being said, it is the employer’s job to provide a safe environment for their employees. The OSH Act of 1970, or as many know it as the general duty clause, states the following: “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” COVID-19 is no exception when it comes to workplace safety as it has already claimed the lives of over 400,000 American citizens and has the possibility to inflict long-term complications to a portion of those who survive.
The following sections are general guidelines regarding COVID-19 in the workplace. Put forth by OSHA and the CDC, these recommendations exist to try and contain the spread of COVID-19 in a reasonable manner. Each employer must interpret the guidelines as needed for their specific workplace to ultimately protect their employees as best they can, and to keep the company running while simultaneously preventing non-compliance citations in terms of the general duty clause.
What are Social Distancing Guidelines for COVID-19?
As the case and death counts rise across the world, it is imperative for the public to uphold the safety guidelines that the CDC and other health authorities have been recommending since the beginning of the pandemic. The more people that participate in these safety measures, the faster the United States and the rest of the world will recover from the virus and hopefully be able to return to normal day-to-day activities.
As has been said since the beginning of 2020, the best way to curb the spread of COVID-19 is to limit fact-to-face contact with others. There are numerous ways for individuals to achieve this goal—the following three precautions are the golden standards of social distancing that health authorities have been recommending since the appearance of COVID-19:
- Wear a mask to protect others and yourself.
- Cloth masks and standard surgical masks are sufficient for citizens. N95s should be reserved for those in the medical field as they are putting themselves in danger daily to care for people who have contracted the virus.
- Wear the mask correctly by covering both your nose and mouth, securing it under your chin and keeping it snug against the sides of your face.
- Keep six feet apart from others whether it be indoors or outdoors.
- Some people have been shown to be asymptomatic which means they have the ability to spread the virus even if they have not shown any symptoms. For this reason, limited social interactions are preferable.
- Keep in contact with others via video chats or other forms of internet interaction to avoid contracting COVID-19. If getting together cannot be avoided, do so in very small groups of no more than two households.
- If it is possible, maintain a six-foot distance between household members if one of them becomes sick and always stay six feet apart while in public.
- Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces as much as possible.
- Only go out into public when absolutely necessary such as running errands to retrieve groceries or other necessary household items.
- Going to bars, the gym, restaurants, or other public activities often occurs in places where there is not enough ventilation. This only puts people more at risk of contracting the virus and for that reason it is recommended that people avoid going out to places like these.
As the foundation of proper social distancing practices, the above actions have the potential to greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19 and subsequently save thousands of people from succumbing to this highly contagious virus.
Social Distancing in ManufacturingUnfortunately, when working in an industrial environment such as manufacturing, workers are not able to take their work home with them. Nobody can’t build cars, complete tasks for a meat packing facility, or build computer parts at home. As many faced this challenge earlier in the pandemic, it has resulted in two outcomes, all or most employees contracting the virus at work due to employer negligence regarding social distancing enforcement, or employers preventing the spread by reducing employee hours, providing PPE, and encouraging a hygienic workplace.
Employees that come down with COVID-19 cannot come into work due to the safety hazard they pose to their fellow co-workers which ultimately slows down or entirely stops the supply chain. However, by providing safe working conditions for employees during the pandemic, delays in the supply chain exist but are minimal. In this case, at least they are operating at some capacity rather than having to shut down the facility completely due to unsafe work practices.
Preventing absenteeism is rooted in providing a healthy and safe workplace for employees. There are several ways manufacturing facilities can achieve this goal while COVID-19 is around, those include:
- Instructing employees to stay at least six feet away from each other
- Have those working closely together wear masks as personal protection
- Stagger work shifts to keep building occupancy low
- Assign workers to more isolated tasks
- Reschedule services that are not crucial to production
- Using temperature check stations to monitor the appearance of COVID-19 symptoms
- Limiting business travel
- Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize! Make disinfectant wipes and other cleaning supplies freely available for employees to clean workspaces
Speaking of sanitization, there are several hot spots for germs in any facility that must be taken into account when trying to keep everyone safe and healthy. Those include:
- Time clock areas
- Break rooms
- Door handles
These are only a few examples, but areas such as these need to be cleaned and disinfected regularly to ensure that contamination is very low or preferably, non-existent.
Implementing Social Distancing Protocol
Beginning by going through the hierarchy of controls is incredibly useful for implementing social distancing protocol in manufacturing environments. There are five components to this method that start with the most effective and descend to the least effective protective measures.
- Elimination – Physically remove the identified hazards
- Substitution – Replace the hazard with something safer to use
- Engineering controls – Isolate people from the existing hazard
- Administrative controls – Alter the way people work
- PPE – If nothing else can be done but there is still a risk, then protect the worker with personal protective equipment
Since the virus can’t physically be removed to protect workers, most of the tactics used in mitigating risk involve the latter three in this pyramid of controls. Engineering controls can be used to enforce social distancing, administrative controls can be used to allow people to telecommute or change schedules to reflect a less populated working space, and involving PPE means acquiring masks and other necessary protective gear for workers.
Implementing social distancing is not an easy task. Much of the reason why is because employees need constant reminders of this protocol to consistently follow the new rules that ultimately prevent them from getting sick. To help with this issue, try putting down signage that is clear and easily visible to all employees. It can be anything from floor signs to remind people to keep six feet apart, floor tape to denote walking paths, wall signs to remind people about wearing masks and proper hygiene, etc.
How to Enforce Social Distancing
Implementing a COVID-19 prevention program is the easiest way to enforce social distancing in workplace environments. OSHA has specified sixteen steps to make this happen in their newly updated COVID-19 guidelines posted on January 29, 2021. Those sixteen guidelines include:
- Establishing a COVID-19 workplace coordinator that is responsible for virus issues on the employer’s behalf
- Performing a COVID-19 job hazard assessment to identify where and how workers can be exposed
- Referencing the hierarchy of controls to eliminate or mitigate exposure
- Using supportive practices for those at higher risk
- Establishing a communication system that everyone understands and can use effectively
- Training and educating workers on the company’s COVID-19 policies in a way that allows for everyone to understand
- Giving instructions to employees in case of exposure
- Supporting workers by allowing them to telecommute if possible
- Working to recognize and subsequently isolate workers who show up with symptoms
- After a confirmed case of COVID-19 has been confirmed, thorough cleaning and disinfecting should be completed
- Providing guidance on screening and testing
- Recording and reporting infections and deaths
- Creating an anonymous process for workers to be able to voice their concern about working conditions
- Making the vaccine available for employees at no cost when they are eligible, include information and benefits about the vaccine as well
- Even after vaccinations have been performed, everyone must still follow all the safety precautions that COVID-19 requires
- Being familiar with all the other relevant OSHA standards regarding sanitation, bloodborne pathogens, respiratory protection, etc.
Following OSHA and the CDC’s guidelines on social distancing is important for the safety of workers as well as the continuation of supply chains and production line abilities. If the correct precautions are not upheld, businesses can suffer much more than just absenteeism due to illness.