COVID-19 has immeasurably affected how we live, and work. With the whole world not being able to work remotely, the healthy workplace is now more important than ever.
The British Council Sri Lanka Library organised a webinar/live conservation with community medicine specialist Dr. Inoka Suraweera on this very topic. Dr. Suwareera is a Consultant Community Physician at the Ministry of Health Environmental and Occupational Health Directorate, whose work on community medicine has been published in several medical journals.
COVID-19 and the workplace
Dr. Suraweera spoke about the potential ways COVID-19 can spread in a workplace, especially since it’s a virus that is easily transmissible by nature. Workplaces, because they gather a number of people under one roof, automatically become vulnerable, which is why healthy workplaces are so important.
Dr. Suraweera noted that given the present situation, a COVID-19 free workplace is not always possible, and as such, it is the responsibility of workplaces to put effective protocols and systems in place that help minimise the potential of COVID-19 to spread within an organisation should an employee of that organisation contract COVID-19.
Preparing for COVID-19
Businesses have a variety of options they can pursue to keep their employees and organisations safe.
For workplaces looking to minimise the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Suraweera shared that it was important for organisations to identify those within their organisation who have the potential to be “super-spreaders” — employees whose roles put them in contact with a lot of people, for example, line managers at a factory, and find ways to limit the potential they have to spread the virus should they become infected. It’s also important to identify employees who are most vulnerable to being infected; those employees who engage with a lot of people outside the organisations like security guards, and find ways to make them less vulnerable.
It is vital for organisations to screen employees for symptoms, and for those employees who are showing symptoms of any illness, especially respiratory illness, not to come to work, because this is how the virus gets in and is able to spread. Employees who have someone in their homes undergoing self-quarantine or who have just returned from abroad should also not report to work, regardless of the workload involved.
From an administrative perspective, organisations need to update all their employee databases, especially with contact information because this information will be essential to Medical Officers and Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) in figuring out which of an employee’s close contacts needs to be quarantined in the case of someone testing positive for Covid-19.
It is also important for organisations to step up on maintenance, making sure all areas and surfaces within the organisation are well-ventilated and frequently disinfected because COVID-19 is able to survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours depending on the type of surface.
Bio Bubbles in a workplace setting
Dr. Suraweera explained that the concept of bio bubbles — secure environments cut off or sealed from the outside world that minimises physical contact — is something that workplaces can implement in their own way to ensure employees are safe, and that if one employee does contract COVID-19, they can only pass it on to a very few people within the organisation, if any.
Ways of including the bio bubble concept at the workplace includes making different locations of the organisation a bubble, especially common areas like meal rooms and washrooms bubbles of their own, with groups of employees given specific times or locations to use, or to create bubbles by shift, where shifts do not overlap, and by extension, the potential to spread the virus to different groups of employees is minimised.
Responding to COVID-19
Speaking on what to do if an employee does contract COVID-19, Dr. Suraweera explains this is why it is important for organisations to have prepared policies and procedures that can be implemented.
It is important for anyone who has COVID-19 to be immediately isolated and the Medical Offer/ PHI promptly informed, for them to take the necessary steps to get the patient to the hospital to receive care. Organisations should then have a plan in place where close contacts of the employee within the organisation are placed under immediate quarantine.
The next thing to do is clean and disinfect areas the patient visited and close them for 24 hours. In the days following an employee testing positive, it is vital to observe all your employees for any signs that they may have COVID-19.
The pandemic has been a stressful time for us all, and being mindful and kind is more important now than ever. Dr. Suraweera stressed that companies should pay extra attention to employees’ mental wellbeing, and to be open in all communication, especially if an employee contracts COVID-19. It’s important for employees to feel reassured and not panicked. They should be told that there has been a case of COVID-19, that the close contacts have been identified and quarantined, that disinfection is taking place, and that it is still safe at their workplace and that they are not in danger.
Concluding the webinar, Dr. Suraweera explained that it is everyone’s responsibility to take steps to minimise the risks and spread of COVID-19. “We are all accountable,” Dr. Suraweera said: “We have a responsibility to unite in these difficult times. We need to understand that health is wealth.”
The British Council Sri Lanka Library’s conversation with Dr. Inoka Suraweera on navigating COVID-19 as an organisation can be viewed in it’s in entirety on The British Council Sri Lanka’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.