Post COVID-19 EHS regulations: A permanent paradigm shift

Even in the eventual wake of coronavirus, some mandates might be here to stay as post COVID-19 EHS regulations.

Taylor Murphy

by Taylor Murphy

As we wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to (hopefully) dwindle out, certain health regulations will remain for the duration. Even with vaccines potentially marking the beginning of the crisis’s end, companies must stay alert and resist getting “COVID-19 fatigue.” 

This includes developing internal processes, policies, and procedures to manage it and any future pandemics on a global scale. Doing so requires not only protecting workers’ health but also maintaining productivity – and will most likely involving continuing to align with guidelines already in place today. 

5 best practices & moving forward for continued protection.

On many businesses’ minds is how to position health and safety programs for post-COVID-19 EHS regulations. Today, there are many policies, regulations, guidelines, and internal procedures in place around the world that give an idea of what to expect in the future. 

Companies can implement these as best practices in their facilities to continue keeping workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond – and even possibly help prevent future pandemics.  

     1. Telework: What to do about working from home

Post-pandemic, some companies may continue to have a part, or all, of their workforce work remotely (i.e., telework). Currently, as a method to prevent the spread of COVID-19, most governments either require or strongly encourage companies to mandate telework where possible. 

Some countries have developed regulations related to employers’ telework obligations. For example, Spain requires employers to come to an agreement with employees regarding coverage or compensation for home-working costs as well as provide appropriate occupational health and safety protection to the teleworker. (However, extraordinary circumstances – including lockdowns due to COVID-19 are not considered remote work and are not covered under these rules.) On the other hand, Belgium only suggests such a telework agreement to establish frequency, accessibility, location, equipment, and expenses reimbursement.  

In most countries, like the US, employers generally have no obligation to pay for extra costs incurred from mandated teleworking. However, even in these countries, most companies must uphold the general duty of care, ensuring those employees are working under safe conditions and providing them with the necessary material to perform the work. 

Telework regulation will likely continue to evolve during the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, companies can look to their operating countries as a guide for creating their own internal telework policies for today and moving forward. 

     2. COVID-19 mitigation measures: Coming back to work onsite

When deciding to return to the office or facility in person, companies can already take the initiative of setting internal procedures that adhere to, but possibly are more stringent than, local COVID-19-related policies. Because policies are still changing (monthly and even weekly), a company that operates in multiple jurisdictions may want to create internal procedures aligned with the more stringent policies or regulations to which it is subject. 

Additionally, companies should develop response measures after identifying confirmed cases. These should include necessary steps to avoid disease spread within the facilities and to the communities. 

In China, companies must immediately isolate employees suspected to be infected by COVID-19, report to the local department of disease control, and admit the employees to a nearby hospital. Further, once the suspicious case is confirmed, companies must isolate and sanitize areas where the infected employee had been. 

Similarly, in Virginia, certain employers must promptly identify and isolate known or suspected infections of employees away from work. These businesses must also develop procedures for employees to report when they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. 

      3. Keeping it clean: Continued sanitary measures

Since its emergence, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the bar for organizations’ cleaning procedures. Companies should also continue to implement sanitizing and disinfecting protocols for their facilities. For example, companies can assign special personnel to regularly sanitize public areas, including canteens, elevators, restrooms, commuting vehicles, and doorknobs (as is required in China). 

Companies can also ensure handwashing stations and/or sanitizing products are readily available, as required or suggested in several jurisdictions across the globe. Depending on the type of workday or shift schedule, the company can develop a disinfecting protocol on top of normal cleaning to ensure that workspaces and frequently touched surfaces are clean and disinfected. 

It’s unclear just how many of these protocols will remain – and to what extent – after COVID-19 is less of a concern. Some might continue as post-COVID-19 EHS regulations. Regardless of their regulatory status, many could serve in preventing future pandemics, and companies should expect to integrate at least some of them indefinitely.  

     4. Persistent precautions for proper ventilation

With its substantial role in the spread of COVID-19, proper ventilation has become one of companies’ highest priorities during the pandemic. Today, many guidance documents across the globe offer companies advice on how to prevent the spread of the virus through their ventilation systems.  

In general, guidance is on using engineering controls, such as certain ventilation and air-conditioning systems, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Companies should ensure that any air-handling systems are appropriate to address COVID-19-related hazards and are maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, as is required in Virginia. 

In addition to guidance for operating ventilation systems, some countries also advise on preparing to turn on an air-conditioning (AC) system (e.g., if the company has been teleworking). China’s State Council recommends that trained personnel verify that all equipment (e.g., filters, surface coolers, heaters, and humidifiers) are operating properly. Additionally, companies must ensure to keep the fresh air inlet and its surrounding environment clean as well as maintain a certain distance between the fresh air extraction port and the exhaust port. 

Also in China, if there is a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case, the company must immediately shut down the centralized AC and ventilation systems in the area. It then must clean and sterilize the centralized AC and verify that ventilation systems meet specific requirements. 

Now that agencies have an enhanced awareness of the role of indoor air quality in worker well-being, these types of requirements are likely to stick around – potentially shaping more permanent post-COVID-19 EHS regulations. 

     5. Training for maintaining health & safety

Health and safety instruction was essential to protecting workers even before the pandemic – and will always be. Continued training for employees is crucial to keep workplaces safe from all kinds of hazards, including those related to COVID-19. 

For as long as the pandemic lasts, companies must ensure that their employees understand the characteristics of both the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19. This understanding includes being able to recognize the hazards, signs, and symptoms of the disease. Across the globe, jurisdictions require that companies provide training on disease prevention knowledge, including wearing the appropriate PPE as well as washing hands and workstations.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic eventually ends, companies should continue to include at least some similar training. This instruction could be included as part of already required and established health and safety sessions. Companies can choose to focus training specifically on COVID-19 or position training with a long-term view of how to best manage and mitigate hazards related to pandemics in general. 

In either case, health and safety instruction will continue as part of post-COVID-19 EHS regulations. If companies train employees to spot issues and mitigate risk appropriately, workplace outbreaks could be prevented in the future. 

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Post COVID-19 EHS regulations: A permanent paradigm shift?

The pandemic has reset the parameters for occupational health and what are considered safe working conditions. Many of the changes put into place will continue, in some form, even after COVID-19 is no longer in the news.  

To ensure your business’s compliance and the continued safety of your employees, you can incorporate best practices into your internal procedures. 

For as long as necessary, companies should maintain face-covering and social distancing procedures. On the long-term, businesses may want to implement more permanent procedures for training employees on COVID-19 and handling future pandemics as well as continued cleaning and disinfecting protocols to mitigate the spread of health hazards. 

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