As the doors to stores, offices, and manufacturing plants open again, leaders are grappling with new local and federal safety procedures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But whatever number of facemasks or bottles of hand sanitizer are on hand, business owners still need to make sure employees feel safe, both in the workplace and around customers.
One group of Amazon workers clearly doesn't feel that way. Last week, Amazon warehouse employees in New York City sued the retail giant, claiming that its working conditions put them and their family members at risk of contracting Covid-19. They accused Amazon of violating public nuisance and employee safety laws by misinforming workers of the dangers. Amazon said Wednesday it was reviewing the complaint, according to Bloomberg.
"If there is not a good process and procedure in place for employees to bring those concerns forward and feel that they are being addressed, companies run the risk of one of these Amazon-type suits," says Erin McLaughlin, labor and employment attorney at Pittsburgh-based law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. McLaughlin says a lawsuit like that could be fatal for small businesses that don't have deep pockets.
With ample communication and education, though, you can help your employees feel safe in the workplace. Here's what you need to do.
Explain the reasons behind your new policies.
Avrum Elmakis, the CEO of CLMBR and owner of three Rise Nation fitness studios in the Denver area, says educating employees on new practices, equipment, and procedures has been the best way to help both employees and customers feel safe. He says his employees have had to learn not only how to handle new procedures but also the backstory on why they've been put in place. For instance, why classes are restricted to a certain number of members, why there's temperature tracking, and why the company uses a steam machine for cleaning.
Understanding those "whys" makes employees more secure in their own workspace, and able to give clear answers when customers ask. "Education builds natural confidence," Elmakis says. "And the ability to convey that to the consumer is huge in my mind, especially in the current and post-Covid world."
Stay current on local, state, and federal guidelines.
With regulations changing constantly, it's crucial to get updated information. Before reopening, Elmakis gave one of his administrators the task of checking on guidelines every day. His studios are in different counties and many of the local regulations vary.
McLaughlin offers similar advice. She says that companies can shift some workers who might be temporarily underemployed to work on Covid-19 response plans, and charge them with staying abreast of the local rules. Or, she says, employers can hire outside help such as HR consultants to keep them updated, which may be beneficial if the company operates in multiple locations.
Have open conversations about guidelines and the use of PPE.
Frequent, fluid conversations with employees are vital, says Denise Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. First, she says, sit down with people, and as they share concerns, you share information about procedures and local regulations. On the basis of that conversation, update the guidelines you have, or write new guidelines to make it work. It's important, she says, to give people a voice in how you're going to go about keeping everyone safe: "It's about participation and an attitude of learning."
It's also worth having conversations specifically about PPE. McLaughlin says she often advises clients to allow employees to use the PPE that makes them feel the most safe in the workplace. Ask employees whether they have medical conditions that might prevent them from using a mask, or if they would rather use a respirator (a medical-grade mask such as an N95), and treat it as an open conversation.
"The key is being flexible, and certainly being flexible to address concerns in the workplace," she says.
Emphasize community safety.
Employees may have differing views on what safety precautions are necessary in the workplace. This is why, Rousseau says, it's crucial that management creates training materials and clearly communicates them to all employees. She also says that the only way employees are going to feel truly safe is if the agreed-upon procedures are followed by everyone.
"It's always about reminding people that they're in a community. That it isn't just about their own rights," she says. "It's about everyone's protection."
Document safety issues and new training materials.
Employees should be trained on how to perform OSHA standard hazard assessments, but also how to appropriately address other safety issues. That could mean reporting the issue immediately to a supervisor or addressing concerns directly with a customer, McLaughlin says. For instance, how do you handle customers who refuse to wear masks in retail stores, in violation of state or local regulations? She notes that it's generally good practice to document any issues, but if it's an OSHA issue, it's an obligation.
Be sure to document any procedural changes, whether that's the use of PPE, certain hygiene, or spacing or scheduling requirements. That way, everyone operates from the same playbook. These documents may also come in handy should an employee lawsuit arise.