On January 23, the Chinese government locked down Wuhan, the
original epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. While people prepared to start
their Chinese New Year celebrations, factory managers worried about the impact
on labor and production. In many cases, fractured management teams located
across China activated crisis management teams and WeChat groups to address the
impending fallout. On January 27, Chinese authorities notified factories to
halt operations. As infection numbers started to subside in February and March,
companies began to slowly reopen.
Companies throughout the United States now find themselves
in a similar situation. As the country prepares to enter a period in which
experts predict infections will peak, workplaces have shut down. But once the
threat subsides, they too will be encouraged to reopen.
The return from a shutdown is not an immediate process and
will likely occur gradually. Companies need to prepare for a phased-in approach
as restrictions may be lifted unevenly across the country. Reviewing the
lessons learned from China’s reopening experience and the risk management
strategies deployed can help give U.S. companies a valuable head start.
1. Be prepared to implement government guidelines. At
the federal level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued guidelines for
establishing safe work environments during COVID-19. State and local
authorities are also issuing guidelines for companies providing essential
services. Businesses should look at these guidelines as a starting point. As
more guidance emerges, particularly regarding the use of personal protective
gear, workplace safety measures will expand.
To get back up and running as soon as possible, companies
should already be preparing for the post-shutdown period. It is critical to
conduct a detailed review and analysis of how to implement health and labor
guidelines to protect employees returning to work.
In China, businesses were required to pass government
inspections before being allowed to reopen. It is unlikely the United States
will require mandatory OSHA inspections for approval to reopen, but companies
still need to be prepared for potential inspections. Manufacturing environments
are at higher risk of an outbreak due to the close proximity of workers on
production lines and should exercise greater care.
In China, environmental health and safety (EHS) teams led
the response to government workplace regulations by implementing comprehensive
control measures. Factories needed to ensure that they had adequate supplies of
key materials like surgical masks, disinfectant and equipment to check
employees’ temperatures. Security guards led front-line duties, ensuring all
employees wore masks and regularly checked their temperatures. EHS teams
organized disinfection campaigns. Specific protocols for how to quarantine or
to manage cases where people recorded a fever were enforced and reported to
2. Deploy front-line risk mitigation. Before
restarting operations, EHS and human resources teams in China approved workers
to return gradually based on an assessment of their recent travel. U.S.
companies should take a similar approach to minimize any potential higher-risk
individuals entering their facilities. Checking employees’ travel histories
became a standard, with many cities across China creating online apps to
approve re-entry into their jurisdictions. These apps contained key questions
and utilized big data to assess whether employees were approved to return to
work. In some cases, individuals were approved to return, but they either had to
be quarantined at home or on factory premises for 14 days.
Tracking the health and travel histories of employees should
be strongly considered in the United States. Companies will need to be mindful
of potential health and privacy concerns. Assessing exposure among employees
based on where they spent the shutdown period and the health status of their
family members will be an important front-line mitigation strategy.
The risk of infection to workers in different parts of the
country will depend on the infection rate in the state, city or county. As of
early April, Wuhan had only recently begun to relax restrictions. Given the
high number of cases in New York, for example, if an employee’s travel history
showed that they were in the city within the previous 14 days, an employer
should request the employee delay returning to work. U.S. employers are not
likely to have the same access to data as in China where a mobile service
provider app can track the travel history of an individual’s cell phone.
Companies could instead use self-declaration surveys for employees to provide
general health symptoms and travel status.
After screening returning employees for potential health
risks, companies should also consider requiring checking temperatures and using
masks for anyone to enter a site. Enforcing this at the entrance to a facility
is the most effective way to mitigate risks associated with both symptomatic
and asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. At a minimum, voluntary mask use on company
premises should be encouraged. This would be a particularly good practice in
manufacturing environments, where distancing efforts on production lines may be
hampered by the availability of space.
3. Perform internal workplace risk mitigation. Companies
can also take steps inside facilities to reduce COVID-19 risks. Using OSHA
guidelines, EHS teams can conduct a risk assessment of their facilities to
identify high-traffic areas. These areas may include elevators, breakrooms,
production lines and bathrooms. EHS teams will need to redesign these areas by
applying social distancing principles to the flow of people and the space
between workspaces. For example, cafeterias can be redesigned so that dining
areas are individually shielded by physical barriers or eating spaces kept at a
safe distance from each other.
Because COVID-19 is also known to remain on surfaces for
extended periods, deep and frequent disinfection is required for high-contact
surfaces. In some areas, there may be difficulties in procuring adequate
supplies of disinfectant or other materials. Employers can consider creative
ways to reduce contact with elevator buttons. In China, it is common for
facilities to install tissue paper or replaceable plastic coverings on elevator
If an employee presents symptoms on-site, companies need to
be prepared to quickly isolate the individual and arrange for medical
diagnosis. Isolation rooms should be designated for cases that arise.
Procedures should be created to manage suspected cases, including quarantining
the individual and next steps to arrange for medical diagnosis and further
triage. If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers will also need
to trace their contact with other employees. Security systems such as access
control and CCTV can be used to support this process. Those who have been in
contact with the COVID-positive employees may also need to be quarantined for
For critical operations, employers can further mitigate the
impact of an on-site outbreak by establishing two separate teams that work
alternating shifts. This will help to ensure fewer people are impacted by an
Following the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies will
need to be ready to implement their recovery plans. By implementing key
workplace controls, employers can mitigate the risks and ensure a safe return