Manufacturers, shipping organizations and companies of all kinds are thinking more than ever about infectious disease outbreaks, and whether they will be ready for the impact when these events strike. This consideration is natural, as the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and accompanying COVID-19 respiratory disease around the world has become the defining health and safety event of recent years, with unprecedented shutdowns in business and public life bringing consequences for people in all walks of life.

With facilities forced to temporarily shutter operations, infection spreading among employee populations and supply chain links breaking down, disease pandemics affect companies in many ways at once. It’s important to get answers to questions about how infectious diseases spread and reach pandemic levels and how best to operate your company’s facilities safely in the face of such events.

How infectious diseases spread

The CDC grades diseases by how contagious they are, giving measles as an example of an easy-to-transmit infection. Novel conditions just emerging in humans have the potential to spread through populations and cause severe damage, as knowledge of such conditions is necessarily scarce and there are no existing treatments for them yet. Diseases tend to emerge on this scale every few years, with pandemic-level influenza variants being a repeated example, and while not all of them disrupt supply lines in the same way, the risk is always there. They demand preparation and readiness on the behalf of business leaders.

Employee safety in times of potential exposure

Companies will have to develop strategies to deal with the potential for infection among their workforces. One of the most essential features of such a plan can be official requests for employees showing symptoms to stay home. Flexibility around normal human resources policies is warranted, the CDC specified – this may mean not requiring physician corroboration to accept someone staying home, even if normal workplace policy is that a doctor’s note is needed.

Policy changes around diseases may also take the form of new messaging to workers. Leaders in the workplace should tell employees about new and more flexible policies regarding sick leave when they are implemented, to ensure these resources are used consistently. If you have relaxed your requirements, either around workers caring for their own health or staying home to take care of family members, make clear announcements of these changes.

If an employee does come in to work and then begins showing symptoms of a highly infectious disease, it’s important to isolate that person from others at once, and send them home as soon as possible. The CDC also recommends that employees with coughs or sneezes cover their mouths and noses with a tissue (or a shoulder if no tissue is at hand) while they are in the workplace, and make efforts to go home immediately.

Infectious disease preparedness and response plans

Whether to cope with a current outbreak or to be better prepared in the event of future problems, it has become clear that companies must have formalized plans in place to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration wants to ensure organizations codify their strategies that incorporate recommendations that come from national or local government sources, but also cover a few universal best practices.

  • Give Each Facility its Own Plan: The CDC recommends that workplace preparedness and response plans vary between multiple facilities owned by the same company, where appropriate. If your organization owns many properties, each of these locations may have different environmental conditions, workforce composition and more. In these cases, managerial staff should have some control over response strategies and policies.
  • Consider the Workforce: OSHA specifies that plans should account for the nature of employees’ duties. Traveling and frequent customer interaction can increase infection risk, for instance. Companies that employ older employees, people with immunocompromising conditions or pregnant workers should ensure their plans take protecting these higher-risk individuals into account.
  • Provide Opportunities for Hand-Washing: The strategies recommended by OSHA for actually stopping the spread of infectious diseases are relatively simple, as they reflect good hygiene practices brought to a more formalized level. Workplaces should have places for employees and customers alike to wash their hands, with hand sanitizer where there is no running water, as well as tissues.
  • Regularly Sanitize Commonly Used Items and Areas: Policies can also include directives that workers stay to their own areas and use their own tools whenever possible. Work-from-home policies are also worth investigating for companies and roles that support them.
  • Codify Emergency Procedures: In addition to prevention measures, plans will list contingencies and strategies to implement in case a new or resurgent viral outbreak causes high levels of absent workers, slowdowns due to social distancing in the workplace, operations with reduced staffing or interruptions in the supply chain.

Companies that are forced to come up with their modified operational strategies in an ad hoc fashion are likely to suffer greater losses than those that have a strategy to employ. Many companies have discovered this fact firsthand, finding themselves unprepared to respond decisively to the global pandemic’s effect on their operations.

In addition to the policy matters that apply to the way workers perform their duties, there is another major area that companies should codify in their policies and focus on: The status of their physical work spaces. The efforts already taken to protect these areas, including proactive maintenance, should incorporate upkeep policies made with disease prevention in mind.

Workplace Cleanliness and Hygiene Musts

The workplace itself can be a contributing risk factor unless organizations prepare themselves, taking an inventory of the current state of the warehouse, distribution center or other facility and making meaningful improvements, especially when it comes to cleanliness.

OSHA has recommendations about the ways in which spaces should be cleaned and disinfected to fight disease transmission, as does the CDC. Manufacturing Success offered a long list specific to manufacturers and other large industrial facilities, including control panels for machinery, vehicles, packaging centers, shipping and receiving docks and offices, and every area an employee might visit, from the breakroom and the locker room to the restroom and the administrative office. Phones, computers and supplies used by more than one employee should also be disinfected regularly, as should the time clock.

Making these processes part of a workplace’s standard maintenance routine ensures they don’t fall by the wayside during periods when infectious diseases are not in the public consciousness.

  • Engineering Controls: In OSHA’s hierarchy of workplace measures to stop infectious diseases from spreading, engineering controls are rated the most potentially effective. This means installing new equipment or changing the design of a facility. You can make your buildings safer by purchasing high-efficiency air filters and increasing ventilation, or by installing sneeze guards.
  • Administrative Controls: Whether or not your facility receives new equipment, it’s important to begin cleaning and disinfecting everything touched by employees. According to the CDC, this includes workstations, counters and doorknobs. OSHA notes that the cleaning agents chosen should be rated by the Environmental Protection Agency to be effective against emerging viral pathogens. The CDC suggests issuing disposable wipes so employees are always able to wipe down their workstations before using them.

Disinfecting of frequently touched workplace equipment is now a more urgent priority than ever before, but the tools and techniques used for this process are essentially the same as they have always been. Implementing more cleaning into your facility’s upkeep is therefore a strategy you can take immediate advantage of.

Staying Safe and Preparing for Disruption

The spread of COVID-19 has proven how quickly and completely a disease can impact productivity and life in general. Companies have come to understand the importance of having contingency plans in place to deal with such deadly and destabilizing health threats. Organizations that did not yet have such policies should now take action to enact them. Developing flexible employment policies, implementing new training, changing facility equipment, cleaning more frequently: All these and more are important steps in preparing for future events.

Miner’s maintenance and support services are considered critical, as facilities providing essential services from healthcare supply manufacturing to food production must continue operating smoothly to mitigate and minimize the impact of a pandemic-level crisis. Therefore, you can count on Miner to be there for your organization should such an event occur – reach out now to learn more about the right strategy for your organization.