Before the Covid-19 pandemic, most businesses didn’t give a lot of thought to infection prevention. Which, if you’ve ever worked in an office, is something you’re probably well aware of. Nobody made plans for what to do if someone at work came in sick, let alone was exposed to someone else who was sick. It was basically up to the infected person to decide whether to stay home and recover or come to work anyway and risk infecting others. And unfortunately, a lot of the time, they chose Option B.
Then Covid happened.
One infected person in Oregon went to work, and soon seven people were dead and 300 more in quarantine. A wave of infections swept through food processing plants across the country, causing disruptions in the supply chain as workers became seriously ill or even died and plants were forced to shut down. Similar incidents occurred at businesses of all sizes, in all sectors.
As the pandemic progressed and we learned more about how Covid spread, employers had time to come up with plans to avoid these costly, sometimes tragic scenarios. But not everyone did—and not all of their plans were effective. The first week of 2021, nearly a year after the first outbreaks, The Los Angeles Times reported that clusters of coronavirus infections were affecting workplaces from warehouses to supermarkets to the sets of several popular TV shows, in some cases even shutting down production. Cities across the country suffered through similar waves of shutdowns.
Today, as I’m writing this, there’s a vaccine available and widely distributed, but Covid keeps bringing workplaces to a standstill. Just a few weeks ago, in December 2021, at least 132 employees at the SpaceX factory near Los Angeles tested positive for COVID-19. Yes, even a billionaire genius like Elon Musk didn’t have an effective infection prevention plan for his workplace. And it cost him.
As the Germ Girl, it’s my job to make sure that doesn’t happen to my clients.
A workplace outbreak can inflict different levels of pain on your business. At the first, most obvious level, some people will be too sick to come to work, which can leave you short-staffed, which means work that needs to get done doesn’t get done. That translates into lost revenue.
If enough people get sick, like with a Covid outbreak, you might be so short-staffed you have to close your business temporarily while people recover. That translates into a lot of lost revenue. Or, your employees might decide your workplace is not safe enough and refuse to come in, like the staffs of several fast food restaurants did in Florida. Or someone might file an OSHA complaint against you.
At the same time, while you’re short staffed or shut down, customers will still need your product or service, and may turn elsewhere for the thing you can no longer provide. This means lost revenue not only in the present, but possibly in the future if you lose them to your competitors long term. Then there’s the possibility of some of your customers getting sick. A few years ago, a series of cases of food poisoning at several of their stores did significant damage to the Chipotle chain’s reputation—and their stock price. Now, after Covid, people will be taking a harder look at other types of businesses that are the site of outbreaks. That can be bad if your business is a hardware store. But what if you’re a medical office? Or a health club? Will people come back if your business is suddenly famous for being unsafe?
That’s why it’s important to have a plan in place for germ prevention/mitigation and treatment in place. Which happens to be the very thing I’m an expert in designing.
The first thing I have my clients do, whether they’re re-opening an office or holding an event, is to decide what sort of infection-prevention protocol they want to have in place before people arrive. These range from minimally to highly effective and include:
- Scanning people’s temperatures before entry
- Having people show a valid vaccine card (although with the development of new variants and the passage of time, this may not be enough for long)
- Asking people to get tested on their own and bring proof of their negative results. If you choose this route, you need to determine how far in advance people can be tested for the results to be acceptable.
- Administering your own test on site.
Administering PCR tests is the option that requires the most planning. First, you need to determine who will get tested. If you’re testing for an event, obviously, whoever shows up will be tested at the door. But what about a workplace where people come every day? Who are you going to require this test from? Will you require it from everyone? Anyone who’s going to be in public areas? Or will you limit the test to people who have been exposed? Consider the needs of your business, particularly how close people come into contact with each other (is it a medical office or a manufacturing plant where people stand several feet apart?) when creating your testing protocol. And of course, have someone on hand who knows how to administer and read the tests!
You also need a game plan for what to do with people while they’re waiting for the test and still need to be separated from everybody else. If you’re going to test 20 people at one time, do you have the space for 20 people? If not, then stagger your testing and entrance times. Maybe five people come at 9:00, and five more and 9:15, and five more at 9:20, and so on—so you don’t have everyone standing in your lobby at one time.
Once people are inside, make sure you have the items they need to feel safe on hand. This includes a contract tracing system, which is something I’ll explain in more detail in another blog post but is basically a log with each guest’s name and contact number in case there is an exposure. And of course, make sure to provide hand sanitizer at all entrances, major hallway arteries, lunch rooms, break rooms, and outside every bathroom.
Covid is going to go away…but outbreaks will still happen, just like the colds and flus that spread through offices and classrooms and other workplaces every winter. No one knows what the next pandemic will be, or how it will spread, or how deadly it will be—only that, at some point, it will happen. That’s the one small, silver lining to our current Covid crisis. Now that we’ve learned to take infection prevention in the workplace seriously, we can use that knowledge to stay safe all year, every year.