Through most of the COVID-19 pandemic Canadians and their governments have been relatively successful at navigating the fine line between keeping the economy reasonably open while minimizing the risk to individual Canadians and our healthcare system. With over 25% of the population now having at least one vaccine, we are in the late innings but with more daily infections per capita than the US and surging variants, we are at risk of blowing it.

Governments have been focusing on reducing transmission through social contact – in some good and some bizarrely excessive ways – but they have left the “essential” parts of business by and large alone.

Unfortunately, those of us operating essential businesses are becoming a big part of the transmission problem. More and more jurisdictions are shutting down essential businesses that experience significant outbreaks. As business leaders, unless we accept the responsibilities associated with the privilege of remaining open, we risk blowing it for the country, our business and others who are doing the right thing.

Here are ten steps that I believe all essential businesses should be taking as part of remaining open. Many should already be obvious to you.

1. Revisit your presenteeism policy

If employees or their family members feel unwell during this pandemic, insist they stay home.

As the employer, continue to pay them as you normally do. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will also save you money in the long run.

We have had such a policy in place for many years and it is not abused. You can decide whether or not to retain a sick pay policy in the post-pandemic world, but for now, it is critical.

2. Maintain safe distances or create safe barriers

If people can work from home, they should work from home. I have led by example and have been to my office only a handful of times over the last year.

At the same time, be aware that requiring certain people to work from home may cause them undue mental hardship. Each case needs to be considered on its merits.

Keep people working at least two metres apart wherever possible. The farther apart the better.

If people must work closer together, look to see if you can put up physical barriers like clear plastic curtains between them so that they can each maintain their own clear airspace.

Where it is practical, create one-way flows along halls and corridors (although “in passing” contact risk is relatively low).

3. Make appropriate PPE available

If people have to work in close proximity for more than a few minutes, offer them properly fitting N95 respirators rather than medical masks or reusable fabric masks.

The supply of N95s has gone up dramatically and pricing has come down to more normal levels. If the new variants can be transmitted as an aerosol, other masks won’t cut it when working close together. ASTM F2100 level 2 masks are appropriate for more transitory exposure risks.

Offer close-fitting safety glasses or faceshields to reduce the risk of exposure through the eyes. Modern eye protection is affordable and fairly stylish.

4. Look at your HVAC system

This is not my area of expertise but it seems that some HVAC systems can help spread aerosolized COVID-19 virus.

If you have a lot of staff in a relatively confined area, even if they are 2 metres apart, get an HVAC expert in to look at your system. Find out if the flow rate and direction are optimal and would HEPA filtration be practical?

5. Continue to practice good hygiene

It seems the risk of COVID-19 through physical contact is lower than originally feared but that doesn’t mean we should drop our guard in this area.

Continue to practice good hand hygiene with frequent hand washing for 20 seconds with soap and water or use hand sanitizer, especially before activities that will result in touching food or our face.

Regularly clean workspaces and other shared touchpoints including washrooms, stair handrails, door handles, and items in lunchrooms.

6. Pay attention to how people take breaks/eat/gather

Many people will drop their guard while taking a break from their regular duties.

Staggering lunch and coffee break times to avoid overloading common facilities.

Set up eating areas so people remain a safe distance apart and enforce maximum occupancy levels for these spaces.

If people take smoke breaks, they need to safely distance.

Keep people safely distant during in-person meetings and wear masks. This applies to meetings between two people in an office and bigger meetings in meeting rooms or on the plant floor/job site.

7. Getting to and from work can be hazardous too

This is a particular risk for people sharing rides or taking public transportation.

Assume that the person next to you could have COVID. That means you should be providing your employees with N95 respirators and glasses for travel.

If you send multiple people to job sites, try to have them travel in their own vehicle. If they must travel together, provide them with the appropriate PPE.

8. Staying safe at work is no good if people aren’t safe at home

Encourage your team members to keep their same “safety first” mindset when they are away from work as they have on the job. This means masking in public, proper hygiene, staying away from sick members of the household and avoiding large gatherings.

Many of us are feeling physically and mentally exhausted after over a year of ever-changing protocols and lockdowns. Make sure you have a good Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) that your team and their family members can draw upon in times of need.

Encourage physical activity and maintaining a healthy diet.

Be empathetic and caring in day-to-day relationships at work and at home. You don’t know what the other person is going through.

9. Frequent and regular proactive testing

Check for symptoms before anybody is allowed to enter your facility – use a questionnaire and consider temperature tests.

Random or ongoing COVID testing using an inexpensive antigen test kit is an excellent way to detect within 15 minutes whether someone likely has COVID – either when they display symptoms or if they are an asymptomatic carrier. These may be available free of charge from the government or you can source them through companies like ours.

10. Support people to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible

Until we reach herd immunity, COVID will continue to be a problem. As employers, we need to encourage as many of our people as are eligible to get vaccinated as soon as they can.

Now isn’t the time for vaccine shopping. People need to accept the first one that is offered to them.

If you are a high-profile essential employer, you may be able to negotiate with your provincial government to access a supply of vaccines to administer at your worksite. You will likely have to organize and pay for the health professionals to administer the vaccine, but that cost is peanuts compared to the benefits.

Be willing to give people the paid time off to get vaccinated when needed.

Business leaders must step up

Finally, as with so much during this pandemic, regular and ongoing communication with your team to provide reassurance and reinforce these safety points goes a long way to building a safe, positive and caring culture.

A very big wave is cresting. If we as business leaders don’t step up and do the right thing, governments will, and we’re likely not going to like the outcome.

Please join me in delivering this message to all those that would benefit from it.

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Bruce Levitt

President

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