How to Handle Concerns About Coronavirus (And All Viruses) In the Workplace

The coronavirus provides employers with the opportunity to discuss wellness in the workplace and make changes to help keep employees healthier

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9 action steps for employers to take

This article was originally published on Feb. 6, 2020. It was updated on March 2, 2020. 

Coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, has been dominating the headlines in the United States and around the world. The epidemic provides employers with the opportunity to discuss wellness in the workplace and make changes to help keep employees healthier.

Coronavirus, originating in Wuhan, the Hubei Province of China, has spread across multiple continents. The Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of State has issued travel warnings: they ask anyone who has traveled through Wuhan and is experiencing symptoms to immediately seek medical attention.

According to the CDC, symptoms include:

  • Mild to severe respiratory illness
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing

The CDC is keeping track of confirmed cases in the United States. Employees are concerned, and employers are looking to allay fears and minimize risk. Disease awareness and prevention measures should be top of mind.

infographic-symptoms

Source: CDC

Battling viral infections in the workplace

Viral outbreaks, including the coronavirus, are always of concern to business. They spread quickly, often with devastating results. Over 60,000 Americans die from the flu virus every year.

Preventing the spread of infections should be part of every workplace safety plan. To prevent outbreaks in the workplace, the CDC has common-sense recommendations, useful to minimize the spread of viruses and bacteria.

Employers should post these recommendations prominently, especially during cold and flu season, and remind employees they can help reduce the risk of infection:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces

Action steps for employers to minimize the spread of disease

Flu season or not, employers can take steps to create a healthier work environment with action steps for business and employees.

Here are some tips:

1. Require employees to stay home when they’re sick

Encouraging or requiring staff members to come to work when contagious is risky, the chances are high they will infect others. Many states have mandated sick time for staff members to recover from illness. Bottom line: sick staffers should not be required to come to work.

2. Stock up on sanitizing wipes

Employees should have wipes at their workstations and in common areas and use them frequently, especially before eating. Keep stock available for their use to minimize risk.

Bleach-based wipes should be readily available in lunch and break rooms. Employees should wipe down surfaces and equipment before or after use. These wipes are typically stronger than hand wipes and help disinfect surface areas.

3. Invest in a sanitizing dishwasher

If your lunch/break room doesn’t have a dishwasher, consider investing in one. Hand washing dishes typically cannot sanitize them. Even antibacterial dish soap (not antiviral) cannot effectively disinfect at water temperature levels tolerable for hand washing. Dishwasher’s high heat is most effective — those with a sanitize cycle are best.

4. Cleaning without a dishwasher

If you don’t have a dishwasher, Stop Foodborne Illness recommends suspending dishes in a hot water bath, at least 170° for 30 seconds or more, or soaking in a sanitizing solution of one tablespoon unscented chlorine bleach and 1 gallon of cool water for at least one minute.

The most germ-ridden area of your break room is likely the sponge. With all their moist nooks and crannies, sponges are a nesting ground for germs. A much better option to clean up messes is a dish brush. Synthetic dish brushes dry faster and harbors fewer germs.

Also, get rid of dish towels. A drying rack air-dries dishes without spreading germs and often dries them faster.

5. Disposables and dispensers

If you look to disposables to help employees nosh and stir coffee, consider investing in utensil dispensers. Rather than having employees fish through drawers or boxes for a spoon, these low-cost items issue a single utensil at a time, cleanly. Napkin dispensers are also a good choice. You may even find less waste when you use dispensers.

6. Ask employees to bring utensils to/from home

Better yet, consider asking staff members to help reduce the spread of germs by bringing utensils along with their lunch and taking them home with them daily to clean.

Staffers who use their own travel coffee mug to get to work, for example, can just as easily refill it then use an office mug. These sustainable options help reduce the amount of single-use plastics that end up in the landfill.

7. Keep soaps and towel supplies stocked and hands-free

Washroom areas should be fully stocked at all times to encourage employees to wash thoroughly after their use. Hands-free dispensers for soap, towels, flushing, and even water are a great way to reduce the spread of germs.

8. Increase cleaning services, if possible

When the germ season arrives, increase the frequency of cleaning or cleaning services if you can. The more janitorial can come in to wipe down surfaces and vacuum, the better.

9. Monitor temperature and humidity

Much to the chagrin of most employees, a colder workplace less easily spreads germs. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends hospitals keep temperatures between 65 and 69° to inhibit infection in operating rooms. While that may be a bit too cold for staffers, too high of heat can encourage germ growth.

Some research also suggests indoor humidity of less than 40% is a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. In addition to lowering the risk of infection, employees will be more comfortable and experience lower static cling and electric shocks.

Discussing coronavirus with staff

For employees who do not travel internationally or associate with those who do, the risk of contracting the coronavirus is minimal. But for those who have traveled to China or are connected in some way to someone who has, the CDC has recommendations on their website.

For most U.S. workers, the chances of contracting coronavirus are non-existent, but discussion about the virus offers an opportunity for businesses to promote a healthier workplace. It’s a good time to assess wellness overall in your organization and make changes that can help all employees stay healthier.

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