Updated: Sep 8
Governments are understandably keen to remove any remaining COVID-19 public health measures, and after 3 years of on/off restrictions they are trying to at least give the impression they are making progress. However, the statistics show us that while the Omicron variants are less serious for most people, case numbers and hospitalisations are still spiking with each new wave. So what should businesses be doing to protect their staff and customers as we approach the endemic phase of the COVID-19 outbreak?
It's tempting to follow the lead of most Governments and simply remove all restrictions, but unlike Governments we’re not just trying to create the impression of leadership, we have a moral and legal duty to protect people. Also, customers are now very aware about how business practices can impact on their health, and employees have an expectation that their company will have measures in place to prevent infections.
In many countries there’s also a legal duty – for example in the UK there’s the Health and Safety at Work Act, in the US there’s the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Singapore has the Workplace Safety and Health Act – all these statutes replaced old ‘Factories Acts’ with new laws that made the protection of workers’ health a legal requirement in addition to the protection of their safety.
While many customers want to see a return to pre-COVID levels of freedom, this needs to be balanced against the need to protect people’s health - but there’s an additional challenge created by the latest variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. While Omicron looks to be less serious, it’s also more infectious, and a recent study published in The Lancet (link below) of contact tracing within 8903 household found that half the infections were caught from people who had no symptoms at the time the infection of other household members took place.
The study also found that the average ‘intrinsic generation time’ (time between a person becoming infected and then passing it on) was 6.84 days, whereas the average ‘serial interval time’ (time between the first household case developing symptoms and the next case being infected) was 2.38 days. Meaning there’s about 3 days when a person can infect others without even knowing they have COVID themselves.
So businesses have a legal and moral obligation to introduce practical health protection measures that remain effective even though people can infect others for about 3 days before their own symptoms appear. In practical terms, this means that asking sick people to stay at home is only part of the answer. So what other measures should we be considering?
Masks are a divisive issue in most Western countries, but a common practice in Asia long before the pandemic. There’s been lively mask-debating since the pandemic began, but it just seems logical that a mouth covering will help to prevent droplet infection by any respirable disease, including colds and flu as well as COVID. In addition, any food process covered by an effective HACCP assessment should have identified masks as a critical control for risks such as norovirus when handling open foods. Therefore continued use of masks for staff preparing ready to eat foods should be a serious consideration. More controversial, but no less important, masks should be worn by any staff working in the close vicinity of customers, unless screens are a practical option. We’ve all managed to survived wearing masks at work and on public transport for over a year without expiring due to lack of oxygen to the brain, so I believe we can manage it for a work shift.
As it’s clear COVID is here to stay, we should also be thinking about longer term measures. Investing in improvements to ventilation systems could be cost-effective when you consider the improvements in customer confidence and the potential to reduce lost time due to illness. Properly designed airflows in the workplace should make the wearing of masks unnecessary, reduce the incidence of all droplet-borne infections and help staff to feel safe at work. This may also help to encourage people to break the ‘working from home’ habit.
My final recommendation is possibly the most important, but also the most challenging. Changing people’s behaviors is key to maintaining high standards of health, so leading by example and having regular education campaigns to reinforce good personal hygiene practice is an essential element of your businesses’ legal required health protection regime. Small things can either reinforce or weaken your hygiene culture at work – does the boss wash his or her hands when starting work, does the company keep the premises clean and in good condition, and are the washing facilities properly maintained and equipped with soap and sanitizer? Next need you need a break – forego the Executive Washroom and have a quick look at the staff toilets, and I’m 95% sure they will be missing some essential supplies.