Practical Compliance Considerations When Resuming Normal Operations for COVID-19

By Jeremy Wherren, CSP, CHMM, CMQ/OE, Corporate Health and Safety Officer
As this COVID-19 public health crisis approaches the month of May, I recently heard the term “quarantine fatigue” for the first time. The cultural attitude in the United States is now in earnest to reopen businesses to help get the economy on track so long as it is safe to do so. During this pandemic, several companies had to dust off their business continuity or pandemic preparedness plans and/or conduct planning on the fly as this crisis unfolded. The likely scenario was that many businesses, even those with plans, had to react in real time to the unprecedented scale the COVID-19 crisis impacted operations. Whether your business has a solid plan or not, there is now a litany of information out there (now including this blog post) concerning best practices and precautionary measures for businesses to reestablish and sustain its operations for a new normal. In attempt to reign in this informational overload, I have summarized some practical planning elements with linked resources to consider when returning your business operations back to the new normal in the coming days and weeks.

1. Align your reopening plan to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and state government guidance on general health and safety precautions concerning reopening planning.
Recently the Federal government issued “Opening America” guidance for each state or region to follow as a guide to safely bring America back to work and normal life. However, while some states such as Maryland have publicly announced they will be aligning with the federal guidance, many other states are going to plot their own course depending on the degree COVID-19 has impacted that state. Businesses should be continually monitoring information issued from within the states they maintain operations to verify how that state is planning to come back.

Relative to the kind of precautions to take, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and state public health guidance remain as some of the best sources to follow for generally accepted COVID-19 prevention practices. Some states may also use their economic development or business regulation agencies to issue requirements for safe work-place requirements. Businesses in those states with U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) approved plans should review that state’s OSHA equivalent website. For example, the Vermont OSHA is requiring awareness training be provided to all non-healthcare essential workers by May 4th, 2020 concerning COVID-19 precautions required by that state. If you are unsure if your state has an OSHA approved plan or an OSHA equivalent entity, you may find out more at concerning state approved plans.

Depending on the specific industry your business operates in, there is likely other applicable resources available through certain trade organizations and other regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Association. This resource list is too long to practically provide for this post but keep contact with your local and national trade organizations regarding COVID-19. These organizations have developed COVID-19 forums and remote meetings that provide very insightful information sharing, benchmark practices, and even industry lobby support to the government regarding COVID-19.

2. Assess the health and safety risks for reopening your business.
Prior to resuming an operation or reopening your business, each employer should be conducting a risk assessment for COVID-19 to its work force for a given operation or task. As discussed in the second post of this blog series, OSHA published Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 in late March 2020 to help employers assess the risk of occupational exposure to COVID-19. The level of risk depends on a variety of factors including industry type and the need for contact within 6 feet of potentially infected persons. To help employers determine appropriate precautions, OSHA divided job tasks into four risk exposure levels: very high, high, medium, and lower risk.

OSHA states within the guidance that most American workers likely fall in the lower exposure risk (caution) or medium exposure risk levels. However, until a risk assessment is completed, you may not be aware about the risk level and appropriate precautions to take. Also, a written and certified hazard assessment is required for use of personal protective equipment (PPE) per OSHA PPE regulations for work tasks. Even if your business already maintains written PPE assessments, they should be updated to reflect hazards to COVID-19 exposure.

3. Consider your employees welfare needs during the reopening process.
We have all had to endure a wide spectrum of personal challenges and emotions through this public health crisis including unemployment, working remotely for long periods, keeping up with bills, and managing a family from home without the framework of support (schools and day cares) parents normally lean on. It is critical for businesses to recognize how the reopening plan will affect its employees personally. While those in a furloughed situation are likely eager to get back to work, others may have kids at home with the entire school year cancelled and cannot come back to work immediately, or they have some other family obligation requiring them to work remotely or part time until this crisis is behind them.

Businesses should work with their human resource representatives that allows employees some different options to get back to work in a way that does not stress an already stressful situation. There are several resources available that provide guidance on employee mental health and the COVID-19 crisis, one site I found helpful was the Center for Workplace Mental Health.

If a business maintains an Employee Assistance Program, that resource should be brought into the spotlight as another resource to help cope with this crisis. Employees who return to work knowing they are supported by their employer with less distractions or stresses in their life will promote a safer workplace.

4. Review critical operations needed for reopening.
Chances are if your business maintains critical operations deemed essential to your business, those operations have not ceased or have been maintained in some enhanced way through the COVID-19 crisis. Moving forward, how will controlling exposure to COVID-19 affect critical operations in your business? Regardless of the current operational status (full operation, enhanced operation, or shutdown), businesses should review existing work and emergency procedures to maintain critical operations as well as ensuring competent staff are still in place with knowledge to operate such processes. From a compliance standpoint, OSHA maintains regulations regarding accounting for critical processes in regulatory areas such as for Emergency Action Planning, and for management of highly hazardous chemicals in the Process Safety Management9 standard.

5. Review life safety compliance prior to reopening.
Some facilities may have been shut down quickly in reaction to a governmental closure order during this pandemic. Thus, it is important for businesses to assess its facility assets for life safety compliance prior to resuming operations and/or reopening to the public. Some key elements to review could include the following:

  • Inspect the condition of fire extinguishers and related fire protection equipment, OSHA requires visual monthly inspection of fire extinguishers. Fire suppression systems require periodic inspections and testing as well.
  • Ensure fire alarm systems are in good working order and up to date with testing and maintenance.
  • Look for poor housekeeping or storage of materials in walkways and on working surfaces which could present an egress hazard in the event of an emergency evacuation.
  • Test emergency lighting for function, repair as needed.
  • Review and update your facility Emergency Action and Preparedness Plans. Have any facility contacts changed during this crisis? Does anything change in how employees should evacuate and assemble in an emergency while the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing?

6. Review operations or programs with environmental compliance needs.
Consider in your reopening plans what if any operations may have environmental compliance needs. In March 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Temporary COVID-19 Enforcement Policy which does relax some EPA enforcement of noncompliance so long as employers act responsibly to maintain compliance as best as possible. However, this enforcement policy does not include all EPA regulations and so to ensure compliance, your business should conduct a thorough review of its existing environmental programs. If your business is resuming its operations, EPA expects your operations to be compliant with related requirements as soon as possible.

7. Evaluate training gaps and opportunities to maintain operations.
In just the past few weeks, much may have changed in how your employee workforce is composed and the level of competencies remaining from the unfortunate effect of furloughs or loss of employees who found other employment during this crisis, or maybe some required training has lapsed and now requires to be fulfilled. The business training plan should be reviewed for compliance needs, competency in operation of critical functions, and work force cross functionality to build depth for competency if an emergency occurs or staff absenteeism increases during a pandemic. Taking stock in your training needs now can help create a stronger continuity plan in the future.

8. Consider preparations for the next wave.
It is possible, or even likely by recent CDC announcements, that there will be additional waves of the COVID-19 pandemic until there is more effective treatment and a vaccine to combat the virus. It will be more important now than ever, that your business take lessons learned from the first wave and prepare for the potential for additional waves to occur. Such activities need to be conducted in the following weeks and months to help be as prepared as possible may include:

  • Designate a responsible person within your business to monitor and maintain your pandemic planning. This will help keep the direction of your planning more organized and less reactive to a highly fluid situation, for small businesses this may just become one of many hats for somebody. In those cases, delegate out certain responsibilities among your team and then meet regularly to discuss. Best practice may include formation of a Pandemic Preparedness team that meets regularly to discuss issues.
  • Persist to be opportunistic with replenishing critical supplies. Review what critical supplies were needed and used over the past several weeks and plan a contingency supply. Some supplies will continue to be hard to find, but persistence in monitoring availability will be key so that some stocks can be replenished and maintained.
  • Put all that you have learned into a practical written plan so your business has a roadmap to be prepared for future waves or a new pandemic. In my next post I will summarize a simple planning structure that may be appropriate for your plan by aligning its preparedness actions to “ramp up or ramp down” to the pandemic phases defined by the CDC.

Should your business (small or large) need assistance with pandemic planning, COVID-19 safety procedures, risk assessments, or related EHS compliance support, Nobis is here to help. Please reach out to me anytime at should you have any questions or needs. Be safe, we are all in this together.

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