VP Workplace Practice, National Safety Council (NSC)
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed how we live and work. Employees are now working from home or in settings with extremely different operating and safety protocols. For many Americans, the workplace poses a potential risk for exposure, and employers are on the front lines for successful contact tracing.
From the beginning, the National Safety Council (NSC) has urged employees to prioritize employee testing and contact tracing as key strategies for preventing further spread. NSC launched the SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns effort to give employers the tools and resources to ensure safer workplaces. In addition to providing guidance, we also strive to understand the types of COVID-19-related safety protocols organizations are using and how those protocols might affect different health and operations outcomes.
A key role
Employers play a key role when it comes to testing, contact tracing, and other risk mitigation protocols, and technology can make this task much easier if used wisely. Unfortunately, rising cases nationwide pose a challenge.
Results from a recent NSC national employer survey indicate positive coronavirus cases were on the rise as organizations started to ramp up operations and bring more employees back to work sites. This means better surveillance protocols, such as testing and contact tracing, will be crucial aspects of the COVID-19 response for employers moving forward, even as most organizations are working to control infection in their workplaces.
On average, employers have spent upwards of $100,000 each on pandemic-related safety practices, yet workplace or at-home coronavirus testing was one of the least implemented practices as part of this investment. As an example, providing coronavirus testing at site entry can not only speed up testing and tracing efforts, but has been shown to have a positive impact on workplace productivity during the pandemic.
As part of overall safety leadership, business leaders can share vital information around potential spread with public health officials, who are primarily responsible for tracing contacts in the community. Working with public health authorities, employers should immediately notify other employees, vendors, and/or customers that they may have come in contact with an individual who tests positive or is presumed to have COVID-19.
Employers must also train workers on protocols for entrance screening, reporting symptoms, and what to do when a coworker gets sick. Finally, employers need to have flexibility for exposed employees, who were identified through contact tracing or other methods, to self-quarantine for the recommended 14-day period.
Technology like contact tracing apps and wearables can help employers ensure they inform everyone who may have been exposed ease this process. To protect employee privacy, employers should use methods that provide the maximum privacy of employee data and seek employee buy-in. Employers should seek out apps or technology that keep geolocation data anonymous and encrypted.
Systems and policies should also be put in place to assure data is automatically deleted after it is no longer relevant to the purpose for which it was gathered. Employer privacy policies will need to be updated to reflect the type of data being gathered and shared, how it will be used, and for how long.
Proper contact tracing, while vital for all employers, can be key to safeguarding smaller organizations and the overall health of the general public. Working to protect both employee safety and privacy will not only help us get ahead of the pandemic, but ensure our businesses remain resilient well beyond it.