Thank you for joining us for today’s webinar on COVID-19 Safety at Work. I’m Brian McFadden, a compliance specialist here at Graphic Products.
In this webinar, I’ll talk about the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself:
- What it is,
- Why it’s so challenging to face,
- And what’s been done about it so far.
Then, I’ll dive into an overall model for managing COVID-19 risk in the workplace:
- Understanding the risk,
- Responding to that risk with the Hierarchy of Controls,
- And implementing the steps of the hierarchy effectively.
I’ll also cover some of the regulatory issues related to this pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a new situation; it’s changing rapidly, and different communities have seen different impacts. As a result, local authorities at the state, county, or city levels are setting some specific requirements that apply in their jurisdictions. Because these local requirements vary so much and change so frequently, I won’t cover them today. Please check with your local authorities if you have any questions about the specific rules in place in your area.
About This Virus
What Is SARS-CoV-2?
First, what are we talking about?
The Virus Itself
The global pandemic — that is, this disease that people are getting all over the planet — is called COVID-19, and it’s caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2.
You’ve probably heard the term “coronavirus” used to refer to this disease. That’s actually a generic term, describing several different viruses — the same way “pickup truck” describes several different vehicles. All coronaviruses share some basic similarities, such as their general shape when seen under a microscope: they look like little round blobs, with tiny “crowns” scattered around the outside.
Virus vs. Immune System
These viruses don’t eat, and on their own, they don’t have any way to make more of themselves. Instead, they hijack the cells in a host’s body. The hijacked cells stop doing their normal jobs and make more copies of the virus instead. Then those copies hijack other cells and do the same thing.
Fortunately, the human body includes an immune system that fights infections. Unfortunately, fighting a viral infection isn’t just about getting rid of the virus itself; every cell that’s been hijacked is just going to churn out more copies. The victim’s immune system has to break down some of their own cells to solve the problem. The overall illness is a combination of the virus interfering with the victim’s body, and the victim’s body trying to fight off the infection.
Symptoms and Results
Since the virus can hijack a lot of different kinds of cells, there are a lot of possible ways for the overall illness to progress — so different victims can experience different symptoms. There are trends, though, and those trends are the easiest way to track the illness in general.
For COVID-19, the most common symptoms include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Other symptoms have included a reduced sense of smell, sore throat, muscle pain, and diarrhea. Many victims have had only mild symptoms, but some have developed serious respiratory problems like pneumonia and needed hospitalization.
There have been additional complications, too, including kidney failure, and even auto-immune problems — where the immune system starts attacking healthy cells. Some of these problems will last long after the virus is gone from the victim’s body. And a lot of victims never get that chance: there have been over 350,000 known fatalities from COVID-19 worldwide, and over 100,000 in the United States alone.
(For more information: https://covid19.who.int/)
How Does It Spread?
To make things worse, this virus is very good at spreading from one person to another — it’s even more infectious than the common flu. But there are limitations to its abilities.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to spread mostly between people who are physically close together, within about six feet, and it spreads through respiratory droplets that are produced when a person talks, coughs, or sneezes. (A single sneeze from can release tens of thousands of these droplets, carrying millions of virus particles.) The droplets are small enough to be carried on air currents, and if a droplet carrying the virus reaches another person’s eyes, nose, or mouth, the virus can begin to infect that person.
Eventually, these respiratory droplets will settle out of the air and onto a surface. From there, the virus can make its way into another person if that person touches the contaminated surface and then touches their face or a food item. This isn’t believed to be the most common way for the virus to be transferred — over time, the particles do break down — but it’s possible.
The virus is most likely to be transferred from a sick person to a healthy person when:
- The people are close together, less than six feet apart,
- The interaction between the people is relatively long in duration, or is repeated several times,
- The people share a space without fresh air, or
- The people share contact with objects, tools, or surfaces.
Basic Protection Steps
Granted this information about transmission, there are some steps that everyone can do to protect themselves:
- Avoid spending time near people who are sick,
- Clean and disinfect surfaces or objects that are touched frequently,
- Wash your hands often, using good handwashing technique, and avoid touching your face,
- And stay home when you’re sick (except to get medical care).
These basic steps are so simple and so easy that there’s no reason not to follow them. On their own, they won’t solve the problem, but they will help.
The Problem of Pre-Symptomatic Transmission
Unfortunately, there’s another very important aspect of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that throws a wrench into the works: the problem of pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic transmission.
From “Latent” to “Infectious”
When a viral infection gets started in a victim’s body, there’s a short period when the infection is still ramping up, and there aren’t enough copies of the virus for it to spread effectively to other people. As the infection progresses, more of the victim’s cells get hijacked and more copies of the virus get made. Eventually, there are enough copies of the virus that it can spread into the environment and start infecting someone else. This transition is described as going from “latent” to “infectious.”
From “Pre-Symptomatic” to “Symptomatic”
At the same time, there’s a second line of progression. Early in the infection, most of the victim’s body is still working just fine. The virus is there and hijacking cells, and the immune system is fighting it — but nobody notices yet. Typically, the infection will progress to the point where this fight between the virus and the immune system has a noticeable effect on the victim’s overall health, with identifiable symptoms like a fever or cough. This transition is described as going from “incubation” to “clinical,” or from “pre-symptomatic” to “symptomatic.”
Some victims never reach a point where they have noticeable symptoms, so “pre-symptomatic” can be an awkward name; those people have an “asymptomatic” infection.
With COVID-19, the illness seems to reach its “infectious” stage several days before it reaches its “clinical” (or “symptomatic”) stage. During that time, an infected person can spread the virus without knowing they’re sick, and anyone who gets infected that way will have no way of knowing for several days, too. Even asymptomatic victims — the ones who never know they’re sick at all — can pass the infection on to others, who might not be so lucky.
(For more information: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0869-5)
That makes the simple steps of “avoiding sick people” and “staying home when sick” a lot more complicated.
Flattening the Curve
Once we realized these problematic details about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, there was a lot of focus on “flattening the curve.” That curve described the number of people who were sick at any given time.
Avoiding Healthcare Overwhelm
People studying the development of COVID-19 plotted out the expected curve and saw something alarming: once the curve reached a certain point, there would be more people who needed hospital care than there were spaces in a hospital to take care of them.
If that happened, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to get treatment for their life-threatening symptoms. Not only that, but other people who needed hospital care for other reasons would be in serious trouble, too. We would have seen more fatalities and more suffering across the board, from all causes.
To avoid this “overwhelm” scenario, many areas instituted stay-at-home orders or other public health precautions to bring down the infection rate — trying to squash down that rising curve. Those precautionary steps focused on reducing face-to-face interactions between people, even people who seemed healthy, because most transmissions of the virus happen during those interactions.
Not the End of the Story
As a result of those steps, we saw a huge difference in the infection rate. Overall, the curve has flattened out. This is a very good thing.
But importantly, flattening the curve doesn’t mean we beat COVID-19. The virus is still around, and there are still lots of new cases every day. Flattening the curve just means our hospitals have room for the sick people. And if we aren’t careful as we return to having more face-to-face interactions again, we’ll see a second spike in the number of cases, and we may be right back in the same mess.
Managing COVID-19 Risk in the Workplace
Whether we’re returning to work after a stay-at-home order has been lifted, or maintaining a critical operation that never stopped, we’re all facing the same core question: what do we need to do to protect ourselves, our coworkers, and our customers?
What is Risk?
Essentially, we’re trying to manage risk. Risk is a common concept in industrial safety, combining two ideas:
- the severity of a potentially harmful effect, and
- the likelihood of that harm actually occurring.
Each of these ideas provides a scale that’s easy to understand logically. Severity can range from a minor inconvenience up to a catastrophic loss of life; likelihood can range from practically impossible up to practically certain. Combining the two lets you easily estimate the overall danger connected to a given situation.
Importantly, it’s extremely rare for a given situation to involve no risk at all. There’s usually something that we can’t control. That’s what we’re facing with the COVID-19 pandemic; there are a lot of factors that we simply can’t control right now. But thinking about the situation in terms of risk helps to point out what we can do: we can reduce the overall risk by lowering the chances of someone contracting the illness in our workplaces.
How do we do that? The same way we can manage any other workplace risk: the Hierarchy of Controls.
The Hierarchy of Controls
The Hierarchy of Controls is a logical structure for understanding and addressing risk, applying the most effective steps first. It’s frequently used for electrical safety, chemical safety, and mechanical safety — and we can use it for biological safety, too. You may already be familiar with the steps:
- Elimination, or removing the hazard entirely
- Substitution, or replacing a severe hazard with a less severe one
- Engineering Controls, or physically changing the workspace or equipment, typically to separate a worker from the hazard
- Awareness, or providing the information people need to keep themselves safe in general
- Administrative Controls, or changing the rules and practices for a given task to reduce a worker’s exposure to the hazard during that specific task
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which provides a last line of defense for the wearer in case a harmful event occurs.
So how can we apply these steps to mitigate the risks of COVID-19?
Step 1: Elimination
For the first step, elimination, we can’t really do that. Ideally, we’d like to eradicate the virus, like with polio — but we’re not there yet, and it might not be possible. But it’s worth acknowledging that eliminating the hazard is the ideal, and all the other steps are just trying to get close.
Step 2: Substitution
The second step, substitution, is on the horizon. Once a vaccine is available, that will let us trade out the risk of full-blown COVID-19 for a much less harmful shot. The virus will still be out there, so it’s not elimination, but it will be a dramatic reduction of risk — even for people without the vaccine, because it will reduce the number of potential carriers, and reduce the amount of the virus that’s present in the environment.
Step 3: Engineering Controls
For most of us, this is where we get into the things that we can do, right now: engineering controls, which physically change the workplace to protect people. And good news: there are a lot of things that we can do here.
The most direct Engineering Controls are physical barriers, such as acrylic sneeze guards. These kinds of barriers separate workers from each other or customers, and can physically block the respiratory droplets that might otherwise transmit the virus. Simply having a physical barrier present is also a great reminder to maintain appropriate distancing and avoid close contact.
Where a barrier isn’t appropriate or feasible, rearranging workstations may be a better alternative. Space your workers at least six feet apart, and stagger positions so that no worker faces directly toward another. These steps will help to limit the transfer of respiratory droplets, even without a physical barrier. You may need to provide visual cues for the revised work positions; marking areas with floor tape can be an effective solution. The PathFinder line of floor marking and safety tapes include a variety of options to meet this kind of need.
Airflow and Ventilation
Be aware of airflow and ventilation. Since respiratory droplets can remain suspended in the air, workers need fresh, clean air as much as possible. However, fans that blow air past one worker and directly toward another can make the droplet problem worse. Staggering worker positions, or redirecting fans may be enough to solve this problem, but if no safe fan position is possible, consider removing the fans entirely. Just be aware of possible ventilation and heat problems that could result, creating other hazards for your workers.
Handwashing and Sanitizing Stations
Employers are already required to provide handwashing stations under OSHA’s sanitation standard (in 29 CFR §1910.141). These stations are typically part of a restroom. But with frequent hand-washing found to be one of the simplest methods for limiting the spread of COVID-19, consider adding additional handwashing stations or providing hand sanitizers, especially if you can offer touch-free sanitizer stations.
Consider Other Gathering Areas
Don’t forget to look at break rooms and other places where workers might gather. Rearrange or remove chairs and tables to increase the separation between individuals. It may be worthwhile to create additional temporary break areas, using outdoor spaces if that’s feasible for your location.
Step 4: Awareness
The next step of the hierarchy is awareness, which is all about providing information to your workers that will empower them to make safe choices. This can mean a dedicated training session, like this webinar, or a five-minute check-in at the beginning of a work shift, to discuss issues. It can even mean signs and labels to provide reminders when and where the information is needed. Graphic Products carries a wide variety of pre-made signs and labels for these kinds of needs, and our DuraLabel line of printers lets you make customized signs on-site and on-demand.
As part of this Awareness step, make sure that all workers understand the basics of the disease, and the general steps they should follow to protect themselves.
Designate a qualified workplace coordinator to be responsible for COVID-related planning and response. (Since you’re watching this webinar, this might be you!) All workers should know how to reach the coordinator with their concerns. Be open to suggestions and questions; after all, your organization needs Awareness, too.
Step 5: Administrative Controls
Now that we’ve provided general information, we can institute administrative controls — that is, specific rules and procedures. These rules have to be planned carefully, but they may not be as complicated as you might think.
For example, most workplaces periodically clean their equipment — especially shared equipment that is used by multiple people throughout a workday or workweek. Simply increasing the frequency of that cleaning, and adding a disinfection step, can make a huge difference in protecting your team. Areas or equipment that are touched by members of the public, such as doors, touchscreens, and gas pump handles, should get priority in these cleaning steps. Sanitizing wipes can make this process much easier, and incorporating periodic wipe-downs into a worker’s routine will help keep everyone safer.
Many companies have instituted additional requirements or controls that their employees must follow as part of the normal workday. For example, some workplaces check each person for a mask as part of their entry policy. Some even perform a touchless temperature check, to ensure that workers who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 are kept out of the workplace and sent home as soon as possible.
Remember that a victim can be infectious for some time before symptoms appear. That doesn’t mean these door checks serve no purpose at all, though. Checking for symptoms is a way to visibly encourage workers to stay home if they feel sick, rather than letting them feel like they need to “tough it out.” Workers who know they will be sent home anyway are more likely to stay home in the first place, and that reduces the number of face-to-face interactions they will have.
Response to Sickness
This leads to one of the most important administrative controls that a workplace can use: procedures for response if a worker gets sick. You probably have a system already in place for workers to call in sick. Make sure that system is working smoothly, and revise or expand it as needed.
Communicate what your organization expects from sick workers — most importantly, that they stay home or get medical care as needed, and not come in to work. They also need to know what will be provided for them in response. If a worker needs to stay home due to illness, their normal work area should be cleaned and sanitized as soon as possible, in case it had been contaminated while they were still pre-symptomatic.
Step 6: PPE
Finally — after all the other steps have been exhausted — we get down to personal protective equipment. This is the last line of defense. You’re probably aware of the general types of PPE that are being used for protection from this virus: most frequently, gloves and masks.
PPE for Viral Protection
OSHA has established rules for these kinds of PPE, when job duties require them, in 29 CFR §1910.132-138. The rules require employers to assess the hazards that a worker would be exposed to in the course of their work; if PPE is needed, the employer must provide it. If a worker’s job duties will reasonably result in exposure to the virus — for example, in much of the healthcare industry — those PPE requirements apply to COVID-19.
Beyond the established requirements, though, PPE to protect from a viral hazard can be problematic.
Gloves or Handwashing?
Workers who aren’t already familiar with glove-wearing as part of their work will be prone to minor mistakes in putting on, taking off, or replacing their gloves. Those minor mistakes can result in cross-contamination, reducing the effectiveness of this type of PPE. For many workplace situations, frequent handwashing and frequent cleaning of equipment will be easier to implement, and more effective at protecting workers, than providing gloves.
N-95 Respirators or Cloth Face Coverings?
As for masks or respirators, this gets to be even more complex. High-efficiency masks, such as the N-95 respirator, are a common form of PPE for protection from airborne particles like smoke and dust. They’re also effective at blocking the airborne respiratory droplets that are the most common way for the SARS-CoV-2 virus to spread.
However, with the massive increase in demand for these masks, their supply chains have been strained. Unless your work involves occupational exposure to the virus, or you need this level of protection for other reasons, you should probably leave the N-95 masks for those who need them most, such as healthcare workers.
An alternative is the cloth face covering, or cloth mask. Because a cloth mask is made from a woven material, it’s going to have pores that can allow tiny particles to get through — but even a cloth mask can be effective at blocking or slowing down respiratory droplets, especially those from the wearer. (Remember that problem of pre-symptomatic transmission; if you think you’re healthy, you may be wrong.) Cloth masks are simple and inexpensive, so having everyone in the facility wear such a mask can be helpful and practical for limiting the spread of the virus.
Using Multiple Controls Together
In some cases, multiple types of controls from the Hierarchy can work well together.
For example, if your facility uses a clock in/out station, consider adding extra stations to reduce crowding. As a physical change to the workplace, that would be an Engineering Control. At the same time, you might also look into staggering workers’ start and stop times, so that fewer workers will be at the punching station together; this approach would be an Administrative Control. Using both approaches together would increase the effectiveness of each approach.
How Have Regulations Changed?
Most of what I’ve covered today has been practical, rather than regulatory. As I mentioned early on, most of the specific rules responding to the pandemic are local, and changing frequently as the situation develops.
What Does OSHA Have to Say?
As the federal authorities on workplace safety, OSHA has put together a complete resource center online — but they haven’t created any new regulations that you need to follow. Instead, they’re focusing on how the existing general rules need to be followed, in the face of this relatively new hazard.
For more information on OSHA’s requirements and recommendations, see their complete resource center online, at osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19.
Recording and Reporting Requirements
One specific requirement that I’ve been asked about is OSHA’s rule for recording workplace injuries and illnesses. These requirements are in 29 CFR Part 1904, and the records are often referred to as a workplace’s “OSHA 300 Log.” In addition to the recording requirements, any work-related injury or illness that results in hospitalization must be reported, directly to OSHA, within 24 hours.
However, it can be difficult to determine whether an instance of COVID-19 was work-related. For the time being, OSHA has provided some guidance on this issue, but be aware that these guidelines are subject to change.
If an employee at your organization contracts COVID-19, make a reasonable investigation to see if you can determine whether the transmission is likely to have occurred at work. For example, have there been several cases among employees who work closely together, or did the worker’s duties include direct contact with the general public? Consider information that the employee can provide for you, as well as any information from your local healthcare providers and public health authorities.
Even if you determine that a case of COVID-19 was work-related, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your organization did anything wrong — but failing to investigate, or even hiding your findings, would be a problem.
Responding to Illness
Even more importantly, though: after a case of COVID-19 is discovered, look to protect your other workers. Encourage those who had contact with the sick person to get tested. Clean and sanitize the workspace. Keep open lines of communication.
When in doubt, remember this guiding principle: employers have a legal obligation — a general duty —to provide a safe workplace for their employees. This is the “General Duty Clause,” out of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the law passed by Congress 50 years ago that gave OSHA its authority.
Besides, protecting your workers, and your customers, is the right thing to do.
Today, we’ve talked about the key details of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes:
- The virus is spread from person to person mainly through respiratory droplets created when someone speaks, coughs, or sneezes.
- When an infection begins, the virus starts hijacking the victim’s cells to make more of the virus, and their immune system tries to fight it off.
- Typical symptoms, when they appear, include fever, a cough, and shortness of breath. Other symptoms have included a reduced sense of smell, sore throat, muscle pain, and diarrhea.
- Unfortunately, the virus can usually spread from a sick person for several days before the sick person develops any symptoms, and realizes they’re sick.
- This led to the fast spreading of the disease, and many communities had to take drastic action to “Flatten the Curve” and avoid overwhelming their healthcare capabilities.
- While we’re seeing infection rates slow down, that’s not the end of the story. We haven’t beat this thing yet.
Then, we talked about managing the risk of COVID-19 in a workplace setting:
- “Risk” is a concept combining the severity of a harmful effect with the likelihood of that effect occurring.
- While we don’t have much control over the severity of this disease, we can take action to reduce the likelihood of getting sick.
- A good system for planning and taking those actions is the Hierarchy of Controls, which applies the most effective approaches first.
- For most workplaces, the most important controls are Engineering Controls, or making physical changes to an area or equipment.
- After that comes Awareness, or providing the information people need to protect themselves.
- Then, we move to Administrative Controls, or changing rules and procedures for planned situations.
- The last step of the Hierarchy is PPE, which offers a last line of defense for the person wearing it. Unfortunately, PPE relies on being available and used correctly, so it has some drawbacks.
If someone at your organization develops COVID-19 symptoms, you may need to record it as part of your work-related injury and illness record, or your OSHA 300 Log.
For other legal requirements, check with your local authorities; requirements vary from place to place, and they’re changing rapidly as the situation develops.
Solutions from Graphic Products
As you prepare your workplace for safety in a changing situation, make sure you are communicating effectively with your workers, clients, and customers. You may need signs, labels, posters, floor tape, or protective equipment, and Graphic Products is proud to support your needs.
We carry a variety of COVID-19-related signage, ready to apply, to help you guide workers through new procedures and maintain safe social distancing. If you need custom signage for a unique application, we can help there, too — or you can make your signs and labels on-site and on-demand with a DuraLabel printer, which comes with a five-year warranty and free world-class support for the life of the system.
Our PathFinder line of floor marking tapes include durable choices for marking lines and boundaries, as well as shapes and even printed floor signs to communicate clearly in a variety of conditions and stand up to heavy traffic.
We’ve also added new products to our catalog to help meet the new needs that our customers have encountered. If you don’t see what you might be looking for, we’re glad to work with you to find new solutions.
Thank you for joining us for today’s webinar on COVID-19 Safety at Work. My name is Brian McFadden, and I’m a compliance specialist with Graphic Products.
We’re proud to meet your needs for visual communication in the workplace. Additionally, we offer a variety of free resources on industrial safety, business improvement, and related concerns at GraphicProducts.com. If you have any questions about what we’ve discussed today, feel free to give us a call at 866.927.8573. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.