In December 2019, Hubei Province in Wuhan, China declared a cluster of cases of pneumonia due to a then-unknown cause. It was later identified to be a new strain of coronavirus, first dubbed the novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV and then officially named SARS-CoV-2. This is due to its resemblance to SARS-CoV, the coronavirus that causes SARS.

The World Health Organisation formally declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020. Even before then, health authorities around the world have worked and now continue to work around the clock to beat the disease. Most efforts are focused on preventing the further spread of the virus, as laboratories develop and test potential cures and vaccines. Governments have also developed guidelines on how essential workplaces, such as supermarkets and police departments, can continue operations without increased risks.

Understanding How COVID-19 Spreads

COVID-19 spreads through viral droplets, usually released when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. Another person may get infected if they directly inhale these droplets, or if they touch contaminated objects or surfaces and then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes. This method of infection is largely similar to the common flu, although COVID-19 is found to be at least twice as contagious.

Using this knowledge, the New Zealand Ministry of Health has issued general guidelines for essential businesses. These include working from home when possible, limiting or eliminating physical interaction among staff, and the frequent cleaning of premises. All of these are in an effort to slow down the spread of the virus and prevent overwhelming the healthcare system.

Workplace Sanitation in the Time of COVID-19

Hygiene and cleanliness are the best ways to minimise the risk of transmission of COVID-19. Workers are expected to practise proper hand washing as often as possible, especially those whose jobs require human interaction. The standard is washing hands for 20 seconds, although hand sanitisers with 60% alcohol can be used as an interim solution until one can access soap and water. Workplaces are expected to provide these supplies to ensure compliance.

Sanitation is also of paramount importance, even more so if the workplace has a suspected, probable, or confirmed COVID-19 case. There are two general principles to remember for thorough and efficient cleaning. First, clean surfaces from top to bottom. This ensures that any particulates that fall onto the floor will be removed. This method also prevents recontamination. Second, it’s best to start cleaning the “safest” places first before moving on to more high-risk areas like the kitchens and showers. If necessary, avail deep cleaning services to ensure that even hard-to-kill pathogens are eliminated.

For standard daily cleaning, make sure to disinfect high-touch objects and surfaces such as desks, common telephones, door knobs, and elevator buttons. Supermarkets should also sanitise EFTPOS and similar machines that are shared among employees. If you aren’t hiring a cleaning company to perform the disinfection, make sure to strictly follow the usage instructions on the cleaning products.

Risk Management for COVID-19

Another important component of workplace safety in the time of COVID-19 (or any other epidemic) is risk management. The most critical elements include educating workers about the disease and developing response matrices and business continuity plans at different threat levels. For example, all employees who need to report to work must know what to do before and after leaving the workplace. They must also be trained to identify risks and what to do should they exhibit symptoms or be exposed to COVID-positive persons.

Ideally, the response matrix should be made in coordination with the workplace’s healthcare provider. In the same manner, an enhanced communication protocol should also be developed. Proper incident reporting is particularly important, as this helps with faster contact tracing. Designate a hotline along with safety coordinator or person-in-charge for easier communications and information consolidation. If, for any reason, an employee must travel in order to perform their jobs, the schedule and itinerary must be itemised. Afterwards, the necessary self-isolation protocols must be followed.

Additional Safety Precautions in the Workplace

The New Zealand government is currently at Alert Level 4, which means all non-essential businesses must be shut down. For essential businesses, extra precautions aside from physical distancing and frequent sanitation must be taken to further minimise risk. Such precautions include shift-based working, staggered meal breaks, and flexible leave arrangements. As you may notice, all of these measures prevent people from congregating as much as possible while leaving enough personnel to deliver necessary services.

Access to the workplace premises must also be strictly controlled. If at all possible, only the workers must be given entry. In the case of supermarkets or pharmacies, there should be an on-site prevention protocol. At the very least, there must be a health verification process before customers or visitors can enter the premises to minimise the risk of infection. Finally, assign someone who will be in charge of monitoring and inspections to ensure that everything is properly implemented.

While the global situation appears to be dire, there are several countries that are making impressive strides in containing the virus. In particular, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan have been recognised for their top-notch COVID-19 response. Germany and Finland have also been praised at how they handled the pandemic.

Scientists are hard at work looking for effective COVID-19 treatments and developing vaccines. Meanwhile, the rest of the population can only wait and enforce health and safety measures to flatten the curve. New Zealand appears to be doing so; to continue this positive trend, everyone must adhere to the regulations set by the government. This is doubly important for essential businesses and workplaces, who continue to brave the frontlines to deliver necessary services.