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How Should Work Environments Adapt During the COVID-19 Epidemic?

Series | COVID-19 and response strategy #10


This document is part of a series of discussion notes addressing fundamental questions about the COVID-19 crisis and response strategies. These documents are based on the best scientific information available and may be updated as new information comes to light.

This publication is written by Manolis Kogevinas, Scientific Director of the Severo Ochoa distinction and Research Professor at ISGlobal, and Kurt Straif, Associated Researcher at ISGlobal and Visiting Professor, Boston College, USA.

The European Union Roadmap towards lifting COVID-19 containment measures indicates that “the re-start of the economic activity should be phased in thus ensuring that authorities and businesses can adequately adjust to increasing activities in a safe way. There are several models (jobs with low interpersonal contact, jobs suitable for teleworking, economic importance, shifts of workers, etc.), but not all the population should go back to the workplace at the same time, with an initial focus on less endangered groups and sectors that are essential to facilitate economic activity (e.g. transport). As social distancing should remain largely in place, teleworking should continue to be encouraged. At the work place, occupational health and safety rules imposed by the pandemic should be observed.”

The newly-published document refers to this adaptation in the work environment. It is based on internal ISGlobal documents and corresponding documents from other agencies, and should be reviewed as additional knowledge accumulates.

Work Related Health Effects Associated with COVID-19

  • Stress
  • Burnout
  • Stigma (as potential carrier of infection)
  • Absenteeism from work
  • Multiple indirect effects from working from home and limited physical activity (from reduced active commuting and confinement in general)

Occupations at High, Medium or Low Risk to Infection by SARS-CoV-2

In this document we use a simple three-level risk grouping:

  1. High Exposure Risk Occupations. High exposure risk jobs are those with high potential for exposure to known or suspected sources  of COVID-19. They include healthcare workers such as doctors, nurses, dentists, and professions with frequent and close contact with the general population (e.g., security guards or taxi drivers) in high-frequency periods.
  2. Medium Exposure Risk. Medium exposure risk jobs are defined by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) as those that require frequent and/or close contact with people who may be infected with SARS-CoV-2, but who are not known or suspected COVID-19 patients.
  3. Low Exposure Risk. Low exposure risk includes jobs that do not require contact with people known to be, or suspected of being infected  with SARS-CoV-2, nor having frequent close occupational contact with the general public and other co-workers.

Workplace Preparedness

Workplace preparedness should be applied to all workplaces and should address risk both during a high-risk epidemic period and during the prolonged post-lockdown periods. Disease preparedness for COVID-19 depends on the way of transmission, the prevalence of disease, and the degree of immunity in a population.

It is essential that employers and companies develop an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan that parallels the government’s pandemic planning to help guide protective actions against COVID-19 in the workplace. Plans should consider and address the level of risk associated with each worksite and tasks the employees perform. It is essential that preventive measures are established in workplaces, with physical distancing, handwashing facilities, and respiratory etiquette in place.

It is also essential that employees have a voice as a community of workers, and are informed, engaged, and willing to participate in the transition.

Flexibility should be prioritized in the way the workforce is prepared, regulated, and mobilized.