What Challenges Are Small Businesses Facing Amid Return to Work After COVID-19?

By: | July 9, 2020

John R. Anderson, DO, FACOEM, is the executive vice president and chief medical officer at Concentra, one of the nation’s largest providers of occupational health care. He oversees the overall delivery of care for more than 2,000 clinicians nationwide. He also oversees the clinical analytics and quality aspects of the company’s medical practice, ensuring Concentra’s value-based medicine standards and early intervention model for rapid, sustainable recovery are consistently practiced. He can be reached at [email protected].

Businesses have been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many have been forced to shut down operations indefinitely.

Now that shelter-in-place orders are starting to lift and state-by-state reopening plans are underway, businesses have a new challenge: How to safely return employees to work and avoid future COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace.

Working remotely is not an option for many businesses, such as restaurants, manufacturers and grocery retailers, and these employers need carefully devised plans and protocols in place to contend with the serious risks associated with coronavirus.

There’s a wealth of information available to assist employers. Workplace health and safety recommendations are available through reputable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Even for clinicians, staying abreast of COVID-19 policy can be a daunting task. It can be especially challenging for someone without a strong clinical background.

Fortunately, there are fundamental guidelines that all businesses can observe to mitigate the likelihood of spreading the virus, such as daily health surveillance (e.g., temperature checks), the use of facemasks, and intensive worksite cleaning and disinfecting.

There are also other guidelines available for specific industries; for example, a long-term care facility may have to impose visitation restrictions for better infection control surrounding a high-risk population. Establishing these protocols is the first step toward ensuring workplace health, safety and compliance.

Large Business Versus Small Business

Larger organizations may have the internal resources to interpret and implement the standards provided through local, state and federal agencies and establish a plan of action, but small businesses may be inclined to go it alone.

Small businesses are the backbone of our country, and their workforce health needs have widened dramatically over the years. Never before has there been a greater need to address the varied workforce health demands of small businesses.

While the world endures a global health crisis, many small businesses are in the midst of an economic crisis.

Some have been forced to furlough or lay off employees. Others have closed temporarily or even permanently. Businesses classified as essential services have managed to stay open throughout the pandemic, and others are now reopening with alternative schedules and hours of operation.

The last thing these employers need is an outbreak that could potentially force their doors to close again.

When telecommuting is not an option, workplace readiness is the key to business survival. It behooves small businesses to be proactive during this unprecedented time. Take simple precautions, yes, but also seek the input of occupational health experts.

Occupational health providers are known for assisting employers with drug testing, surveillance and work injury care, but there are numerous essential services they can offer during the pandemic, such as:

    • Worksite Health and Safety Assessments: By visiting worksites, occupational health experts become familiar with work conditions and advise on how to safeguard employees, customers, etc. OSHA can also offer similar worksite assistance, but the agency lacks the bandwidth to accommodate the growing workforce health needs of countless small businesses, especially during a pandemic.
    • Exposure Contingency and Continuity Plans: An occupational health expert can help develop an action plan in case an outbreak occurs or an employee exhibits signs and symptoms of COVID-19 at work.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of relenting, and while reopening is critical to the livelihood of small businesses and their workforces, it’s equally important that business owners are both mindful of the health risks and intentional in their efforts to mitigate them.

Educating oneself, staying current with state and national COVID-19 guidelines, and partnering with an occupational health provider are all valuable ways to help protect the workforce. &

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