Post-Quarantine: Going Back to Work

By Henrylito D. Tacio

In order to curb the proliferation of people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that is a distant cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, countries from all over the world are urging their citizens to observe physical distancing, wearing face mask and personal hygiene practices (like washing hands with soap and water or rubbing with 70% alcohol).

SARS-CoV-2 causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which was first reported late last year in Wuhan, China. As the contagion seems to be under control now, which health experts call as “flatten the curve,” people – who are confined at homes for more than a month – are now eager to go back to work.

Unfortunately, it won’t be a “business-as-usual” scenario. What people used to enjoy and do will never happen again. Filipinos have to adopt and adapt the so-called “new normal” if they have to survive in this post-pandemic era.

Last May 10, the Geneva-based World Health Organization released a document which set some guidelines to consider in adjusting public health and social measures in the context of COVID-19.

The guidelines – which include policies and standard operating procedures – were meant to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace, including employers, workers and their representatives, labor unions and business associations, local public health and labor authorities, and occupational safety and health practitioners.

“Work-related exposure can occur anytime at the workplace, during work-related travel to an area with local community transmission, as well as on the way to and from the workplace,” the document states.

The document classifies three types of exposure risk: low, medium, and high. Workers in the low exposure risk have minimal occupational contact with the public and co-workers.

In areas where COVID-19 cases continue to be reported, the medium exposure risk may be applicable to workers who have work-related frequent and close contact with the general public, visitors or customers in high-population-density work environments. Examples include food markets, bus stations, public transport, and other work activities where physical distancing of at least one may be difficult to observe.

Examples of high exposure risk – outside of health facilities – include the transportation of persons known or suspected to have COVID-19 in enclosed vehicles without separation between the driver and the passenger, providing domestic services or home care for people with COVID-19, and contact with dead bodies of persons who were known or suspected of having COVID-19 at the time of their death.

“Some workers may be at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 illness because of age or pre-existing medical conditions; this should be considered in the risk assessment for individuals,” the document suggests. “Essential public services, such as security and police, food retail, accommodation, public transport, deliveries, water and sanitation, and frontline workers may be at an increased risk of exposure to occupational hazards for health and safety.”

The WHO document also urges employers and managers, in consultation with workers, to carry out and regularly update the risk assessment for work-related exposure to COVID-19, preferably with support of occupation health services.

“Decisions on closing or re-opening of workplaces and suspension or downscaling of work activities should be made in the light of the risk assessment, the capacity to implement preventive measures, and recommendation of national authorities for adjusting public health and social measures in the context of COVID-19,” the document further states.

The document urges that the universal measures – hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene (refers to wearing face mask), and physical distancing – be observed at all times in workplaces.

In physical distancing, the document suggests: “Reduce density of people in the building (no more than one person per every 10 square meters), physical spacing at lest one meter apart for work stations and common spaces, such as entrances/exits, elevators, canteens, stairs, where congregation or queueing of employees or visitors/clients might occur.”

Other measures to be observed are as follows:

· Reduce and manage work-related travels. If possible, cancel or postpone non-essential travel to areas with community transmission of COVID-19. Workers who must travel should be provided with hand sanitizer and advise to comply with instructions from local authorities where they are traveling, as well as information on whom to contact if they feel ill while traveling.

· Conduct regular environmental cleaning and disinfection. Cleaning, using soap or a neutral detergent, water and mechanical action (brushing, scrubbing) removes dirt, debris, and other materials from surfaces. After the cleaning process is completed, disinfection is sued to inactivate pathogens and other microorganism on surfaces. Spraying of people with disinfectants is not recommended under any circumstances.

· Provide risk communication, training and education. Special attention should be given to reaching out to and engaging vulnerable and marginalized groups of workers, such as those in informal economy and migrant workers, domestic workers, subcontracted and self-employed workers, and those working under digital labor platforms.

The document also recommends the management of people with COVID-19 or their contacts.

“Workers who are unwell or who develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19 should be urged to stay at home, self-isolate, and contact a medical professional or the local COVID-19 information line for advice on testing and referral,” it explains. “Where local community transmission is high, and work continues, allow for a telemedicine consultation where available, or consider waiving the requirement for a medical note for workers who are sick so that they may stay home.”

The document also provides specific measures for workplaces and jobs at medium risk and high risk. Aside from those mentioned above, it also urges to provide workers with personal protective equipment and training on its proper use (examples: masks, disposable gowns, disposable gloves or heavy-duty gloves that can be disinfected). Another measure is training of workers in infection prevention and control practices and use of personal protective equipment.

“Workplaces should develop action plans for prevention and mitigation of COVID-19 as part of the business continuity plan and according to the results of the risks assessment and the epidemiological situation,” the WHO document urges.

“The plan should also include measures for protecting, health, safety, and security in re-opening, closing, and modifying workplaces and work arrangements. Re-opening of workplaces should be carefully planned in advance and all possible risks for health and safety should be properly assessed and controlled,” it concludes. – ###

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