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With vaccines underway in Canada and the U.S., workplace operations and settings must be reimagined to adopt a proactive approach into preventing health and safety threats such as COVID-19. As workers are counting on their companies to get them back to work, what should their return look like?
Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist and professor at Ryerson University, has some recommendations that workplaces should review when planning for post-pandemic operations.

Wear a mask

Workers that are vulnerable to health risks should consider wearing a mask in public places with high congestion of people.
Sly said he saw people wearing surgical masks regularly in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong. “It was quite normal to see people on the bus…wearing a mask, and it’s a normal thing,” he said. “For some, it’s to protect against dust. Other times, they may have a cold and want to protect other people on the subway. Other people just want to protect themselves.”
He calls the vaccines a “signal to the end of the pandemic,” but Sly suggests that people who are vulnerable should wear a mask not just at work, but also in public spaces such as sports arenas or big cinemas.
“The vaccination that’s coming out this time is not a complete lifetime immunity,” he said. Further, he said that there will be a common recognition that some people are more at risk than others.
“Healthy, young people will probably be encouraged to go back to the before times, but people who are slightly more vulnerable,” said Sly.
“Maybe because they have respiratory illnesses or they’re frail in some other way, or they’re on some kind of immunosuppressive therapy—anybody in that sort of area should probably be encouraged to [self]-distance, to keep only with their own group of people and possibly wear masks when they’re in a large area.”

Work from home

When the type of operations allows it, Sly suggested companies to offer more opportunities for their workers to do their work through an online-based system. Workers can choose to work remotely from home or anywhere in the world.
“The biggest question probably is whether or not to what degree we’re going to come back to working in little cubicle offices downtown,” Sly said. “And to what degree a lot of that work is going to be done by people working from home.”
He also highlighted the advantages of workers saving time and money by avoiding long commutes. “Everybody has saved hours of commute from their everyday lives and lowered the amount of hours [they] spent commuting, sitting in the traffic breathing in fumes,” he said.
From a public health perspective, Sly said that the more people are prevented from coming into contact with other people, the more it will reduce the time that they’re in contact with someone who is possibly carrying the disease while undiagnosed.

Invest in monitoring and screening technologies

It’s now common to see indoor settings such as retail establishments and workplaces require employees to answer a COVID-19 questionnaire before they enter the building. They may be asked questions about any COVID-19 related symptoms and other information, a privacy concern that some people might have surrounding the use of their health data once electronically collected.
Sly said that he supports emerging technologies that are used for crowd monitoring and screening for the purpose of collecting health data. “The monitoring and screening, from the point of view of electronic screening, I’m all for that,” he said. “This is serious time, this is time to do away with personal privacy.”
“People who are talking about, ‘Nobody keeps tabs on me, nobody keeps an eye on where I’m going,’ I have no time for that,” said Sly.
Managers of workplaces should deploy monitoring and screening technologies for added protection during the pandemic and as a preventative measure for outbreaks of other diseases. However, they should also be transparent about deploying new processes in their operations and how their health data is going to be used.
“The screening tool’s purpose is to enhance public health protection to avoid another lockdown, and to impose consistency and clarity at all workplaces…as COVID-19 guidelines are constantly changing,” said Justin P’ng, an attorney from Toronto in a report by SHRM.

Invest in better air filtration systems

With the use of new monitoring technologies, Sly suggested workplaces to invest in better air filtration systems and monitor the quality of their air.
“I think there might be a place for this kind of monitoring equipment to monitor the condition of the air,” he said. “You really need some very sophisticated equipment to monitor viruses, but I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility.”
Sly also said that he can see these technologies being deployed in workplaces and other public spaces post-pandemic.
“It doesn’t whether you’re in a cinema enjoying a movie or whether you’re packing chicken wings,” he said. “The virus can get from person A to person B within a few seconds of singing or talking or even breathing over short distances.”

Act now

It’s beneficial to be proactive in preventing another outbreak in your workplace, but the time to act is now.
Company leaders must engage in their plans to return to work safely and use this moment to exercise their leadership to enhance health and safety infrastructures. These kinds of changes are pivotal in any short-term or long-term strategies and workplaces must ensure that this reinvention brings many advantages.
Preparing for post-pandemic operations can benefit workplaces, and these recommendations by Sly can help build a safe environment for their workers that not only prioritizes safety, but also provides opportunities for innovation.
By Charlize Alcaraz