The best way to fight back against health and safety issues in the workplace is to know what is going on at the worksite.
“The first step to making changes is to document,” PEF Health and Safety Director Geraldine Stella told members at the annual Health and Safety breakfast at the 2021 PEF Convention. “The workplace assessment is a powerful tool to build a case for change.
“We want to be able to identify hot spots and trouble spots,” Stella said. “Be it health screenings, notifications, vaccination, ventilation, face coverings, social distancing, hand hygiene or environmental cleaning and disinfecting.”
An attempt to address issues at the local labor/management or health and safety committee level should be the first step. If that’s not successful, move on to scheduling an assessment with management and consider involving other unions on site.
Know All Plans
It’s important to know all the protocols at your worksite inside and out.
“Know your procedures,” Stella said. “Be familiar with them. Talk to members themselves and find out what’s happening.” Policies and procedures can include return to office/work plans, field staff procedures, face covering policies, cleaning and disinfecting procedures and vehicle maintenance protocols.
A health screening may include confidential disclosure of vaccination status, periodic testing of unvaccinated staff or a daily questionnaire for signs and symptoms of COVID-19. To ascertain safety in your workplace, what are the procedures if a co-worker, visitor or client develops symptoms at work? If you don’t know – that’s an issue to address.
What about notification? Who is notified when a co-worker is COVID positive?
“You need to know if there is a positive,” Stella said. “Agencies are required to notify close contacts, but PEF Divisions have negotiated widespread notifications.”
Notifications must not reveal the identity of the positive case, but they should include their last day in the office.
“Places were crowded to begin with,” Stella said. “The air quality stinks. It was lousy before and now we have an infectious disease we want to flush from the workplace.”
Ventilation is an often-forgotten aspect of worksite health and safety.
“This is something we really need to push for,” Stella said.
What information do you need?
“Ask how much outside air is coming in,” Stella said. “How many air changes per hour? What is the MERV rating of the HVAC filters? Is demand control ventilation disabled? Is the HVAC system run 24/7? Is the HVAC system properly functioning and maintained? If the location doesn’t have an HVAC, consider portable HEPA filter air purifiers.
“These systems cost money, but, oh well,” Stella said. “It costs more money to have someone out on an injury/illness claim.”
Management is able to obtain ventilation information, whether it’s a state office building, state facility or leased space.
The logistics can be complicated, so the PEF Health and Safety Department staff is ready to answer questions. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mask Policies and Social Distancing
State agencies with worksites in Centers for Disease Control (CDC) transmission risk areas must require masking of all individuals regardless of vaccination status, except when alone in an office or room; working at their desk or workstation; or actively drinking or eating.
Health care facilities, nursing homes, public transit and correctional facilities, for example, may have mask mandates above and beyond the CDC requirements.
“It’s important to understand the policy,” Stella said. “Are adequate supplies maintained? Do staff know how to access them? What is the procedure for reporting staff who do not comply?”
Social distancing can depend heavily on what percentage of the staff is back at the worksite, how many days a week employees are in the office and how cubicles are arranged in the space.
“Are there alternating schedules?” Stella asked. “Can other rooms, like conference rooms, be used as office space to improve social distancing? If it’s not happening, we need to know. If you can take pictures, take pictures.
“Lower density is better,” she said. “The virus doesn’t know six feet.”
Hygiene, Cleaning and Signage
Hand sanitizer, handwashing and routine cleaning are simple tools to combat COVID in the workplace.
“Is hand sanitizer available and adequately stocked?” Stella asked. “Are cleaning and disinfecting supplies available and stocked? Are high-touch areas cleaned and disinfected at least daily?”
For members driving state vehicles, find out the maintenance and cleaning routine, such as how often the vehicles are detailed, who is responsible for cleaning them, whether records are kept, and if staff are directed to clean and disinfect commonly touched areas are adequate supplies provided?
Stella said signage is also important, displaying requirements for face coverings, hygiene and social distancing.
After the Assessment
Add the items noted in the assessment to the health and safety or labor/management agenda.
“Follow-up is important so that we can go through it point by point,” Stella said. “That’s how we make changes. Ultimately, our goal is safety in the workplace. We want to feel OK when we go into that workplace.”