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Responding to COVID-19: a guide for Indian employers

Written and published by the British Safety Council, India on 30 March 2020.

The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease, now known as COVID-19, a pandemic. Over the last three months, the disease has already affected thousands of people in various countries -- notably China and Italy. However, reported cases of this outbreak have only recently begun to surface in India. And this already has Indian businesses as well as the general public on edge.

 

Due to the unprecedented nature of the disease and the virus causing it, there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the disease, how it spreads, and how it can be cured. But, as the number of reported cases have begun to shoot up in the country, it is high time that organizations -- both business and government -- take measures to protect their people based on the information that we have at present. But what do we know about COVID-19? 

 

As of now, what we know about COVID-19 (short for Coronavirus Disease 2019) is that it is a respiratory disease caused by a novel strain of coronavirus referred to as SARS-CoV-2. The common symptoms of the disease include fever, coughing, difficulty in breathing, and a sore throat. SARS-CoV-2 mainly propagates through infected people’s cough droplets when inhaled by healthy people. It is possible that SARS-CoV-2 may spread through contaminated surfaces. Moreover, the notion of SARS-CoV-2 being airborne is also considered by experts as plausible. To minimize the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading among your workforce and impacting business operations in the long run, it is important that you as an employer take as many steps as reasonably possible to minimize the impact of the outbreak.  

 

Following are a few safety guidelines and recommendations that employers can follow to keep their employees safe from COVID-19:

Institute an outbreak response and mitigation plan

To maintain business continuity while keeping their employees healthy, businesses should take a proactive approach towards mitigating COVID-19. To do so, business and safety leaders must create an outbreak response strategy.

 

As the initial step in creating this strategy, businesses must first identify the potential exposure risks that employees may be subjected to based on their functions and responsibilities. For instance, most back end workers are at lower risk of contracting COVID-19 than frontline employees like salespeople and customer care executives. Based on the exposure risk for each employee profile, you can create and initiate specific infection prevention policies and practices for everyone in your organization. You can also conduct safety training sessions in the wake of the epidemic to prepare your workforce 

 

If you have a blue-collar workforce, you may plan special safety training sessions to incorporate infection prevention practices in factory and warehouse operations. You can do this in close coordination with labor unions and discuss further steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of your employees.

Isolate affected people and allow remote working

Based on currently available information, social distancing is the key to preventing COVID-19 from spreading. The simplest way to ensure social distancing as an employer is to allow your employees to work from home. In fact, the government in Mumbai has already mandated non-essential service providers to not work more than 50% of their capacity, in a bid to prevent people from commuting to work and spreading COVID-19.

 

In addition to enabling work-from-home, as an employer you can prohibit your employees from traveling and participating in face-to-face meetings unless absolutely necessary. You can also advise them against traveling if avoidable and make them aware of any travel advisory notices issued by the Indian government. Ensure that any critical meetings and other collaborative activities are conducted using electronic means -- calls, e-meeting, and other online methods. You can communicate this to your vendors, partners, and clients and advise them to do the same.

 

Isolation and distancing is especially crucial for infected persons or suspected carriers of the virus. Employees showing symptoms of COVID-19 should be isolated from the rest as soon as possible. These employees should be allowed to stay home and advised to get tested for COVID-19 infection. Confirmed carriers of COVID-19 should be asked to stay home until full recovery to prevent the virus from spreading further.

 

Employers considering implementing work from home in response to the COVID-19 epidemic can benefit from British Safety Council’s free online safety training course for remote workers’ health and wellbeing.

Implement workplace hygiene policies and practices

At the workplace, be it a head office or a manufacturing or facility, employers should make provisions to prevent employees from contracting and spreading C)VID-19. They should provide employees with basic infection-prevention items like hand sanitizers, tissues or napkins, and no-touch tissue disposal receptacles. You can also encourage the use of protective equipment like N95 masks and gloves to minimize the chances of the virus spreading through contaminated surfaces. They should promote coughing and sneezing etiquette along with other hygiene practices like frequent hand-washing and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

 

In addition to encouraging employees to follow these rules, employers should also ensure that the work environment is cleaned and disinfected frequently to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through contaminated surfaces.

Inform and educate employees by conducting safety trainings

The biggest inhibitor of COVID-19, or any viral pandemic for that matter, is public awareness -- regarding the disease, its gravity, and ways to prevent it. When there is adequate awareness of a disease among a populace, be it the citizenry of a country or your organization’s workforce, collective action towards its prevention becomes easier. Thus, ensuring that all employees are aware of the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic is vital in gaining their commitment towards your outbreak response plan.

 

The first step for business and safety leaders in spreading awareness is gaining awareness of COVID-19 themselves. They can educate themselves on the subject by using resources that offer fact-based information, such as this free COVID-19 course offered by healthcare experts. They can extend this knowledge and awareness through workplace campaigns and special safety training workshops. These safety training workshops and campaigns should focus on promoting hygiene, etiquette, and social distancing practices necessary to prevent the propagation of COVID-19, while providing accurate information on the pandemic and its implications.

 

We still have a lot to learn about COVID-19, and the body of knowledge on the same will continue to grow in the coming months. As responsible employers, it is our duty to keep abreast of the COVID-19 situation in the country and be prepared for exigencies. To stay updated on COVID-19 in India and recommendations by the government on containing the epidemic, you can refer to the Ministry of Health’s website.

 

You can also get in touch with us for more guidance and support on conducting safety training for your employees or managing a remote workforce.