Millions of people have been displaced from their workplaces since the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, resulting in many Americans performing their jobs from their homes. Being in this uncharted territory is leaving many employees unsure of when they’ll resume their daily commutes and return to their pre-pandemic routines. Small business owners and managers also must determine safety plans to the workplace, whenever that may be.

Following are three steps business owners and managers can consider as they prepare to safely welcome employees back to work:

1–Make safety a priority: Small business owners and managers need to understand the importance of fostering a workplace safety culture, which includes approaching safety as a consistent, integrated strategy rather than a one-time effort. Safety shouldn’t just be discussed once in a “welcome back” meeting for the team. It should be incorporated into the business’ culture as well as employees’ everyday routines and job-specific training. In order to keep this consistency, everyone needs to be engaged and safety has to be prioritized.

Leadership is a key ingredient for how safety measures and protocols become commonplace. First off, business owners and managers should create and implement a workplace safety plan specific to their business. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), committing to a safety plan can increase worker productivity, mitigate risk and reduce the likelihood of workers’ compensation insurance claims. Leaders must also set the tone, encourage and enhance employee engagement and continuously improve safety strategies. Some ways to do this include encouraging workers to report any safety concerns and soliciting feedback from employees on ways to make their jobs safer.

2–Identify risks: Top of mind for business leaders is how they can protect their workers from exposure to COVID-19. Management will need to determine if the workplace needs reconfiguration or if processes need to be adjusted, such as whether partitions should be installed or if worker shift times should be staggered, to make sure each employee is able to keep a safe distance from others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social distancing plays an important role in helping to slow the spread of viral infections and other illnesses. To help identify these and other potential health and safety risks, business leaders should conduct a full risk management assessment, including a walkthrough of the workspace, whether it be an office building, a kitchen or a warehouse. This is especially important after work environments have been left empty due to stay-at-home restrictions, as new hazards may have developed such as pest infestations, mold issues, or mechanical equipment failures. For example, during these walkthroughs, leaders should look for visible wet spots on the floor, ceiling, or furnishings, and moldy smells as either could be an indication of a leak or mold issue. Before bringing employees back to work, management should take the necessary steps to address any safety issues, which may include hiring an appropriate remediation service.

It’s also important to identify subtle changes in office layout, such as deliveries piled up in hallways, which can present tripping hazards. Freshly cleaned or waxed floors can lead to slips and falls. For more information on how to address such risks, see OSHA.

Additionally, management should consider hidden risks, or safety risks that don’t always present themselves in a physical workplace. For example, as traffic begins to pick up, employees who have spent time away from driving or have gotten used to reduced traffic may be prone to distraction or an increased sense of urgency or recklessness while commuting to or from work. Management should remind employees, especially those who drive as part of their job description, of taking proper safety precautions while on the road.

3–Communicate: Lastly, communication is key for implementing a safety strategy. Business owners and managers should regularly communicate to employees the importance of workplace safety, including clearly explaining any new policies, procedures and expectations for employees. This includes communicating safety best practices when new employees or risks are introduced, as well as on an ongoing basis. Leaders also need to tailor communication methods to meet their team’s needs. Special consideration should be paid to social distancing guidelines, such as hosting video calls in place of in-person team meetings, or clearly posting safety signage in common areas.

Reopening a physical work environment will take planning, time and patience. While the world of work may look different post-pandemic, with a well-thought-out safety strategy, constant communication and teamwork, small businesses can begin building their foundations for a safe return.

By Dan Killins, Loss Control Program Manager at EMPLOYERS Insurance. Dan Killins is Loss Control Program Manager for EMPLOYERS®, America’s small business insurance specialist®, which offers workers’ compensation insurance and services through Employers Insurance Company of Nevada, Employers Compensation Insurance Company, Employers Preferred Insurance Company, and Employers Assurance Company. Not all insurers do business in all jurisdictions. EMPLOYERS® and America’s small business insurance specialist® are registered trademarks of Employers Insurance Company of Nevada. The information provided is intended to provide a general overview. This information is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. EMPLOYERS® makes no warranties for the accuracy, adequacy, or completeness of the information provided, and will not be responsible for any actions taken based on the information contained herein. If you have legal questions or need legal advice, please consult an attorney. EMPLOYERS®, America’s small business insurance specialist® and EACCESS® are registered trademarks of EIG Services, Inc.

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