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Back on the Job? Here’s How to Protect Yourself From COVID-19

Back on the Job? Here’s How to Protect Yourself From COVID-19

Help prevent the spread of infection and keep your coworkers, customers and family safe with these smart strategies.

Updated July 27, 2020; 10:00am EDT

As states re-open, millions of retail, restaurant and other customer-facing employees are clocking into their jobs.

While working may be a relief to some, many are worried about exposure to COVID-19. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans working outside their homes expressed concerns about being infected or getting their family members sick, according to a spring Washington Post-Ipsos poll. That number rose to about 7 in 10 for Black and Hispanic workers, reflecting the pandemic’s outsized impact on people of color.

To help protect clientele and returning staff from COVID-19 infection, businesses across the country are enacting new safety measures, such as increasing cleaning and encouraging social distancing. Some are changing how they do business, too. They’re shifting hours of operation to limit face-to-face interaction with the public, for example, or offering online, pickup and delivery options.

But even with these precautions, dealing directly with the public can present unforeseen challenges, and there’s only so much that employers can control.

Customers may make decisions that aren’t always in a worker's best interest, notes John Dony, Director of the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council, a leading nonprofit organization for safety advocacy.

Fortunately, there are steps employees can take to help protect their own physical and mental well-being, as well as that of their family, coworkers and customers. Here’s what you need to know.

Reducing your risk on the job
To safeguard against COVID-19, the most important thing any employee can do is follow their workplace procedures. These rules can affect everything from worker responsibilities to facility layout. They may include precautions such as daily health checks and temperature monitoring or may involve special safety training. They could change as the pandemic evolves, too—maybe even from day to day.

Dony says supervisors should communicate these guidelines early, clearly and often. And if they become unclear at any time, employees shouldn’t hesitate to speak with a manager or another safety point person for further explanation.

Beyond observing company rules, workers can take personal precautions to stem the spread of COVID-19, including the following:

Wash up. Keeping your hands clean is vital when your work puts you in contact with the public. Scrub your hands with soap and water or rub them with sanitizer containing at least 60 percent ethanol or ethyl alcohol until they’re dry. If your job involves handling food, wash your hands before and afterward. Otherwise, wash:

  • Before and after shifts and breaks
  • Whenever you handle payments or merchandise
  • After using the restroom
  • Before and after handling your face covering
  • Whenever you cough, sneeze or blow your nose

Remember not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth unless your hands have been washed. Used tissues should go in the garbage.

Maintain social distance. Though it may be difficult sometimes, try to stay 6 feet apart from coworkers and customers whenever possible. Your employer will likely have taken some measures to reinforce distancing, such as spacing out workstations, tables and merchandise displays, or placing signs around the facility or markers on the floor. They may even have installed plastic barriers or closed certain common areas completely.

Wear a mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone wear a face covering in public settings where social distancing is a challenge. Your employer may require a mask or other personal protective equipment, such as a face shield or gloves. Be sure to stick to these rules, and always follow guidelines for proper mask use.

Minimize touch. Try to reduce your contact with merchandise, cash and credit cards. Ask customers to use mobile payment methods or to place payments on a surface between you, rather than give it to you directly.

Stick to your own stuff. From pens to smartphones, avoid using your coworkers’ possessions. Limit your use of communal work equipment if you can. If you do use something that’s not yours, or if you have no choice but to share equipment, disinfect it afterward.

Clean often. Your workplace may be conducting cleanings more frequently and thoroughly, but it’s still a good idea to wipe down things you touch often, including registers, keyboards, workstations, phones, counters and handles.

Stay home if you’re ill. If you or someone in your household has symptoms of COVID-19, inform your supervisor and do not go to work. Instead, take steps to isolate yourself and call your healthcare provider (HCP) for advice.

Should you or a family member test positive, alert a manager to your diagnosis and ask about company sick leave policy. Many businesses have changed their rules to help workers and their loved ones during the pandemic.

Special considerations for high-risk workers
Some customer-facing employees are at higher risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19 and may need extra support. These include older adults and those with certain chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) encourage workers in high-risk groups to disclose their situations to their supervisors. Ideally, support systems are already in place, but additional help is available. People with underlying medical conditions could be eligible for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), while the Age Discrimination in Employment Act offers some protections for older workers.

“There may be work available that you weren't traditionally doing that has less exposure to the public,” says Dony. Under the laws, for example, you could be assigned new responsibilities, or your schedule could shift to times when there’s little direct interaction with others.

Protecting mental health
In addition to your physical safety, it’s important to take care of your mental well-being. Employees may be sad, stressed or fearful about dealing with customers, adapting to a changed job or potentially becoming sick. Coping can be especially hard for people with existing mental health or addiction issues, Dony explains. To help boost your mood and lessen your stress, consider taking the following steps:

  • At home: Prioritize healthy lifestyle choices. Try to keep a regular schedule that includes quality sleep, healthy meals and plenty of physical activity. Limit your alcohol intake and do activities that help relax you.
  • At work: Take breaks when you can and use them to go outdoors or socialize (at an appropriate distance). Speak with coworkers and supervisors about your feelings if you’re comfortable doing so. This can help create an environment of understanding in which you may be able to pinpoint sources of anxiety together and then collaborate on finding solutions.
  • If you feel overwhelmed: Consider asking for additional help from an HCP or mental health professional. Many state health departments have resources and helplines dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic, as do some national organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America. You can also consider reaching out to your supervisor or human resources department (if one exists) for support. Many large companies have employee assistance programs (EAPs) to assist with counseling or referrals to specialists and services. There may be accommodations available for people with pre-existing mental health conditions, as well.

Dony says managers should encourage this transparency and work toward building long-term cultures supportive of mental health. These should extend beyond EAPs, he adds, because the pandemic is far from over.

“This is something we don't anticipate going away anytime soon,” he explains. “We're going to continue to have aftershocks and other issues from a mental health perspective for years to come.”

Your legal options
Your employer is required to obey all local and state mandates concerning COVID-19. Aside from these directives, federal law says your employer must provide you with an overall safe workplace, devoid of health hazards. If the conditions at your job present a clear threat to your health—and you can offer proof—you can file a confidential complaint with OSHA and ask for an inspection. Other federal laws may offer additional protection.

Navigating the legal issues surrounding COVID-19 and work safety can be overwhelming. If you need more information or aren’t quite sure what to do, speak with your state's department of health, its attorney general’s office or a lawyer for advice.

"Knowing your rights and what you can do to advocate for yourself” is vital for any employee returning to work, Dony explains.

Medically reviewed in July 2020.

Sources:

Tim Craig and Emily Guskin. “A majority of Americans going to work fear exposing their household to the coronavirus.” Washington Post. May 15, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), May 2020,” “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): What Grocery and Food Retail Workers Need to Know about COVID-19,” “CDC Activities and Initiatives Supporting the COVID-19 Response and the President’s Plan for Opening America Up Again,” “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Employees: How to Cope with Job Stress and Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Hernan Saenz, Dunigan O’Keeffe, et al. “Back to Work.” Bain & Company. June 26, 2020.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” “COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions,” “File a Complaint,” “OSH Act of 1970.”
National Safety Council. “SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns–Employment, Legal & Human Resources Considerations Return-to-Work Guidance.” June 8, 2020.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Best Practices for Retail Food Stores, Restaurants, and Food Pick-Up/Delivery Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.” June 17, 2020.
United States Office of Personnel Management. “What is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?”
National Labor Relations Board. “National Labor Relations Act.”
Chris Arnold. “Thousands Of Workers Say Their Jobs Are Unsafe As Economy Reopens.” NPR.org. June 11, 2020.

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