sign stating closed due to COVID-19

Without proper re-orientation practices, employers could see a trend in injuries when employees return to work after an extended time away.

Since March, many businesses have been limiting operations to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Amidst the initial state of emergency, many employers were unprepared for closures due to the impacts of the pandemic. Looking back, we can learn from this frantic unpreparedness to plan the safe and effective reopening of businesses.

Millions of American workers have been laid off as a result of COVID-19. We are grateful for frontline workers providing essential services, but we must now turn our attention to closed businesses eager to return employees to work. The following hypothetical situation highlights several risks and steps organizations should understand when transitioning workers back to full-time employment:

Jack’s Story

“Jack” is a warehouse worker with three years of experience at his company. Earlier this year, the warehouse temporarily shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. After over two months of closed-doors, Jack’s employer resumes operations, and he is eager to return. During the first day of business, management is focused on recovering from the lost time and neglects to consider re-training employees.

Before being temporarily laid off, Jack frequently lifted and moved warehouse products. However, due to “sheltering-in-place,” Jack has been sedentary. Now that he is back to work, he begins working at the same capacity as before his time off. Unfortunately, he forgets to use the safe lifting techniques taught by his employer. While lifting a box, Jack overexerts himself, causing back pain and damage to the dropped product.

Jack’s circumstance is not unusual. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2018, roughly 33% of occupational injuries and illnesses occurred during the first 12 months of employment. Comparatively, without proper re-orientation practices, employers may see a similar trend in injuries when employees return to work after an extended time away. Below are a few risk factors organizations should consider:

  • Physical inactivity: Jobs with physical tasks pose a higher risk of worker injury due to physical deconditioning.
  • New and common workplace hazards: Time away from duty can cause employees to overlook hazards and controls.
  • Fatigue: If making up for lost production, employees working extended hours will have increased fatigue, resulting in a higher likelihood of injury.
  • Heat stress: With seasons changing, employees may return to work facing exposure to higher temperatures.
  • Mental wellness: Workers may experience cognitive distraction caused by the personal burdens of the health crisis. This diversion of focus can threaten the safety of employees and their co-workers.

If left unaddressed, these risk factors may pose a significant threat to workers’ safety and performance. Employers should plan re-orientation processes to help employees return to safe work behaviors. In this process, consider the following risk management practices:

  • Refresher training: During re-orientation, provide re-training on workplace hazards and associated safety practices.
  • Adequate supervision: Encourage safety and quality by identifying coaching opportunities and addressing them appropriately.
  • Job Hazard Analysis (JHA): Conduct JHAs of critical processes to refresh awareness of workplace hazards.
  • Acclimation: Allow the workforce to re-adapt to their work environment.
  • Communication: Provide clear and frequent communication to create a shared sense of safety during this transition.
  • Stress and emotions: Develop and share community resources to support employee health and wellness.

Jack’s employer could have prevented his injury by using this risk management strategy to return safe behaviors into the workforce. A re-orientation process will help reduce risk factors associated with extended work absences like many employers face today. To avoid a circumstance like Jack’s employer, business owners must understand how to approach this unfamiliar process. In doing so, they can effectively prepare employees to carry out occupational duties safely.

For more information about returning to work safely, see the following:

For state-specific information regarding reopening a business:

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