Managing Worker Health in a Post-COVID World

The work on containing the virus continues, with a combination of controls such as masking and social distancing, vaccinations and boosters, contact tracking and tracing along with high-specificity, rapid testing that enables targeted quarantining around known outbreaks rather than widespread lockdowns.
The work on containing the virus continues, with a combination of controls such as masking and social distancing, vaccinations and boosters, contact tracking and tracing along with high-specificity, rapid testing that enables targeted quarantining around known outbreaks rather than widespread lockdowns.

Post-COVID, you say? Is the post-COVID dream real, or will we be dealing with it in some way, shape or form for years to come?

Even 18+ months into this pandemic, there are still too many uncertainties to make definitive statements regarding the future. We don’t have the answers regarding long-term immunity from infection and/or vaccine, we don’t know the seasonal impact of the virus and we can’t begin to guess how the virus may mutate or evolve in the future. Depending on the answers to these questions and others, we could see anything from annual winter outbreaks to permanent immunity, which would cause the virus to burn itself out over a matter of time.  

Unfortunately, without the answers to the long-term questions, we must focus on the short-term. The work on containing the virus continues, with a combination of controls such as masking and social distancing, vaccinations and boosters, contact tracking and tracing along with high-specificity, rapid testing that enables targeted quarantining around known outbreaks rather than widespread lockdowns. People and governments are adapting to this new normal, and companies around the world are learning how to conduct their business while protecting their workforce, productivity and profitability.

How Did COVID-19 Effect Industry?

COVID-19’s most noticeable effect on business was the many indiscriminate closures due to government mandated lockdowns. In April 2020, over 180,000 businesses in the United States were temporarily closed, causing massive amounts of unemployment. Many of these businesses have since reopened, but almost 100,000 have permanently closed due to the pandemic. The other major disruption was the degradation of the global supply chain, where the triple-whammy of lockdowns, shipping restrictions and changes to consumer demand caused a significant decrease to global trade and a cascading effect on manufacturing productivity that we are still living with today.

Entire industries were shut down, and the essential industries and companies that stayed open struggled with a multitude of issues while trying to remain operational and profitable. Beyond the macro effects of business lockdowns and supply chain disruptions, COVID had several direct effects on the operations of many key industries. These issues included:

  • Unavailability of workforce (days away from work)
  • Preventative maintenance backlogs
  • Compensatory increase in workloads
  • Workplace restrictions placed by local health authorities
  • Need for operational re-design and worker PPE.

New Rules and Regulations to Fight COVID-19

Over the course of the pandemic, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) responded rapidly and repeatedly with emergency temporary standards and guidelines meant to control and/or eliminate workplace exposures to SAR-CoV-2. In April 2020, OSHA issued an Interim Enforcement Response Plan for Coronavirus Disease which has been updated many times since. This plan established guidelines for activities such as complaints, referrals and severe incident reports and for conducting inspections of several essential industries. In addition, OSHA published detailed guidance for mitigating and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace together with a series of industry-specific guidelines that can help reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus and help keep workers safe. Examples include manufacturing, retail, construction and the package delivery industries.

In January 2021, President Biden signed an Executive Order to create a National Emphasis Program (NEP) to refocus OSHA’s efforts related to COVID-19. The goal of the NEP is to identify and reduce workplace exposure to SARS-CoV-2 conditions in industries where employees are at higher levels of risk. The NEP will also protect whistleblowers that complain about unsafe working conditions from any employer retaliation. Some of the industries targeted by the NEP include healthcare, food processing, grocery, logistics, restaurants and temp agencies. The scope and frequentness of regulatory changes make compliance difficult, but the direct and indirect costs of non-compliance can be devastating to any company deciding to ignore the rules.

Occupational Health Systems Streamline Compliance

Fortunately for many of the industries identified as essential and at higher risk of COVID-19 infection, occupational health and safety has always been a major concern. They have decades of experience managing the health and safety of their workers while tracking and reporting accidents and injuries to regulatory agencies like OSHA in the United States and the Health and Safety Executive in the UK. For companies working in these industries, the additional regulations calling for new processes, increased diligence and some supplementary reporting were evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary. They required some additional processes added to their occupational health and safety programs to maintain compliance.

Contact rracing – If a worker tests positive for COVID-19, whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic, employers must know who they have come into close contact with 10-14 days before confirmation of infection. Check the CDC website for detailed information about contract tracing.

Testing, vaccination and infection tracking – It is vital to keep track of all data regarding a worker’s COVID testing results, their vaccination status and if/when they were infected. This information must be captured in a timely manner and stored in a central database that is secure and private as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Worker screening – All workplaces should implement a comprehensive screening strategy aimed at preventing the introduction of COVID-19 into the work site.

OSHA reporting and inspections – Government guidelines, rules and regulations mandate regular reporting about worker COVID-19 testing and infections. Companies are also required to store all of the data that OSHA and HSE need to satisfy inspection requirements.

As we have learned over the course of the pandemic, the more information you have, the easier it is to control the spread of COVID-19. Knowing who was infected or vaccinated and when will help management control outbreaks, while inbound screening can reduce the likelihood of the virus ever entering your workplace.

Intelex Occupational Health and Safety software streamlines the management of employee medical information for a more proactive and risk-aware approach to worker health management. It simplifies the capture, storage and management of worker health data to continually optimize your occupational health programs while making it easy to construct the correct reports that are required by OSHA. Learn more how Intelex Occupational Health and Safety software keeps you compliant while reducing costs and boosting productivity.

Related content: What Does the COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate for U.S. Government Contractors Mean for You?

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