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Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands: What You Can Do To Prepare for Coronavirus in the Workplace

By: Tami Tanoue, Executive Director and Greg Barlow, Loss Control Manager

Authors’ note: Coronavirus (COVID-19) presents rapidly evolving issues. This article will be updated regularly as conditions change, so please check back for modifications and additions. Also, the authors welcome questions, comments, and any resources you’d like to share; contact tami [at] cirsa [dot] org or gregb [at] cirsa [dot] org.

The impact of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is certainly on everyone’s mind these days Regions around the world have experienced or are experiencing outbreaks.  In the US, instances of COVID-19 are being reported in some states.  The demographics of COVID-19 deaths indicate that the death rate increases by age.  Others at high risk may include those with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or chronic respiratory disease.

Obviously, there are many unknowns about the potential spread of COVID-19 in the US in coming weeks and months. But there are some things that workplaces and individuals can do to prepare.1

Workplace preparations

It’s important to start thinking now about which employees’ jobs could be done from home to accommodate individual needs or a workplace-wide closure. Some questions to ask as you prepare:

  • Does each employee either have an employer-assigned laptop, or access to their own computer equipment, with internet and VPN access?
  • Is there any specialized equipment, such as a check printer, scanner, etc., that some employees will need to have?
  • Do some jobs require interaction with documents or other items that are physically located at the workplace? If so, are there any methods that would address this need?
  • How will incoming and outgoing mail be addressed? Incoming phone calls? In-person customer or citizen contacts?
  • Do laptops or home computers have links to essential cloud-based apps? Are up-to-date virus and malware protections in place? Is web-based or video conferencing readily available and do employees know how to use it? Is there a chat app for employees to continue needed interactions when working from home?

    Image Used from CDC website: www.cdc.gov
  • In the event of school closures, is a plan in place to address the needs of employees who have school-age children?
  • If the workplace remains open, do you have a disinfection protocol and routine environmental cleaning for objects and surfaces that are frequently touched?
  • Are you making sure that soap, sanitizer, tissues, and similar supplies are readily available? Hygienic disposal should also be provided.
  • Take a look at the CDC’s guidance for business preparation.

Travel and “social distancing” issues

It’s possible that travel restrictions may be required or be prudent. Do any positions have travel needs that could be accommodated some other way, such as videoconferencing  or webinar? Some federal officials are suggesting that communities plan for “social distancing measures.”

Is your entity involved in creating travel or public gathering situations that may have to be reassessed? The possibility of cross-infection may need to be considered in planning special events that involve large gatherings of people. Similar considerations may apply to public attractions that draw crowds, and to public transit operations.

Policy considerations

It goes without saying that employees need to stay home when they have signs of potential contagious illnesses. Even in times when pandemic illnesses are not a concern, an employee who shows up to work feeling ill isn’t doing anyone any favors, least of all himself/herself! Your sick leave or PTO policy, as well as supervisor practices, should reinforce (and enforce) this message. You’ll also want to think about how to deal with leave issues if an employee lacks sufficient accrued leave to be able to stay home when warranted, if your policies don’t already address such issues. You certainly don’t want policy or practice to stand in the way of an employee doing the right thing to avoid infecting co-workers.

Many employers already have a work from home policy in place. If you’re among them, take a look now, to see if any revisions are needed to encompass the possibility of individual or mass absences due to COVID-19-related issues. If you don’t have a work from home policy in place, start thinking about one! While many employers have found that working from home is viable, there are implications and nuances that are important to consider. How will employees be supervised? Are there changes you’ll need to consider in accounting for an employee’s productivity, such as a more goal-oriented and results-oriented approach to assigning and evaluating work, as opposed to a strict hours-worked approach?

If you require employees to account for time via a time-clock approach, how will that translate in a work from home scenario, especially for hourly or non-exempt personnel? How will you ensure that overtime hours worked for non-exempt personnel will be accounted for and compensated in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act?

If possible, you might consider a “rehearsal” or “trial run” if working from home is new to the organization. This will give you an opportunity to work out the bugs before working from home becomes a necessity.

One global business has shared its pandemic action plan.  Although the characteristics of local government workplaces will differ somewhat, it’s still worth looking at as a planning resource.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) issues may be implicated when an employee or a covered family member is dealing with a serious health condition. Even if your entity is not one that is required to provide leave under the FMLA, your entity may either have its own version of family leave, or it may have other leave-related policies that you’ll want to look at now.

Many entities are already equipped with a business contingency plan or disaster preparedness plan that may be pertinent. But if you haven’t looked at these plans recently, do so now. Even if they’re only a couple of years old, they may be out of date or may not have contemplated the kind of planning warranted for the outbreak of illness. Now is the time to make sure you have a sensible, up-to-date plan in place.

Contractors and visitors

The work of contractors is another area you’ll want to look at. Do you have any time-critical or mission-critical contract work in place, or coming up, that could be affected by a work stoppage or worker shortage among your contractors? How will you deal with those? Does the contract language you have in place address these possibilities in some way? Many contracts have “force majeure” or “Acts of God” provisions that may be applicable. But take a look at those contracts now to help avoid any disputes, misunderstandings, or other problems that may come up.

Do you have independent contractors or other visitors who come on site? An example might be a janitorial services contract. Are you making sure that those who perform contract work are as well-versed and well-equipped as your own employees are in terms of the personal measures that may be needed (discussed further below)? Even if all employees are exercising appropriate precautions and applying best practices on a personal level, if contractors or visitors aren’t, then that’s a potential vulnerability.

Personal measures

Personal measures are always important in avoiding the spread of illnesses, and this is true with COVID-19. We all need to take responsibility for taking appropriate personal measures. One Colorado official likens personal COVID-19 prep to preparing for a big winter snowstorm. Steps to consider include the following:

  • Most importantly, self-monitor and self-isolate in the event of illness or symptoms such as a cough or a fever, even if mild.  You owe it to yourself, and everyone around you, to stay home, obtain appropriate medical care, get well, and not contribute to the spread of illness.
  • The CDC’s advice for individual practices is what we hear in connection with most easily transmissible illnesses: frequent and thorough handwashing; sneezing into your elbow or a tissue, not into your hand; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers when a sink is not readily available. These practices need to become second nature, if they’re not already.
  • A facemask currently appears to be recommended only for those who are ill, not for those who are trying to avoid getting ill, and the typical surgical facemask is not considered effective; an N-95 (or higher) respirator mask is needed.  There are many precautions around facemask usage.
  • Stay up to date on travel advisories.
  • Check on available tele-medicine options; for some conditions, avoiding a visit to a doctor’s office or hospital may be workable or desirable. Of course, never delay getting medical attention if needed. Particularly with respiratory illnesses, waiting too long for medical intervention can be a deadly mistake.
  • Check your own home for the feasibility of separating sick family members from well ones.
  • Don’t be a hoarder, but make sure that you have on hand items you may need for personal care and preparation.
  • Ensure that you have an uninterrupted supply of the prescription medications you’re already getting.
  • Take a look at the Department of Homeland Security’s pandemic preparation tips.
  • And stay aware of the information provided on the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment’s COVID-19 website.

Essential public services

Many jobs in local government involve essential public services that can’t be compromised, delayed, or halted, and that can’t be done remotely. Contingency planning for these jobs will involve complexities and considerations of far greater magnitude than those that pertain to an office job, and are not currently addressed in this article.

Many of the available planning resources appear to be aimed at pandemic influenza, but may still be of value.  An older resource, that includes planning checklists, is here.

To the extent you have personnel in occupations that may have an elevated exposure risk, you’ll want to make sure that additional resources are made available for such personnel. According to OSHA, solid waste and wastewater management employees may be among those personnel.


There’s no need for undue alarm, but planning for possibilities is your best bet for dealing with an issue that could become a high probability event. And even if doesn’t, good planning is always a sound investment in honing best practices, updating and upgrading processes, and preparing for a host of other potential exigencies. Remember the Y2k scare? Fears of the end of the world didn’t pan out as the year 2000 rolled around. But the planning and prep no doubt helped businesses and governments to do some long-needed cleanup and updating of legacy IT resources. So think of pandemic prep in that vein: you don’t need to build an underground bunker and wait for the world to end, but prudent planning will pay off whether or not the worst case scenario comes to pass.


1 Of course, CIRSA members, and local governments in general, are on the front lines of providing essential public services, including public safety and first responder services. Thus, your entities have even greater responsibilities on the planning front than a typical workplace. However, those issues are beyond the current scope of this article.

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