COVID-19: Don’t Miss the Forest for the Trees

Author: Bill Beadie, CIH Published: June 23, 2020

The impact of COVID-19 is so widespread that planning to operate or re-open a business today can be overwhelming. The complex scientific, economic, political, legal, and cultural issues present a daunting challenge to anyone tasked with answering the question, “What should we do?”

In times like these, we understandably look to experts for guidance. Do you have a nuanced question about sick leave policies? Ask a human resources expert. How clean is clean? Ask an industrial hygienist. This list could go on and on. If you’ve been involved with developing a plan to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, I’ll bet you’ve been faced with questions like, “Do we need toilet lids?” or “How do we use the elevators?” And don’t even get me started on cloth face coverings.

I recognize that those questions, and more, could be very important depending on your circumstances, but without a clear and shared understanding of your overall goals and strategy, your COVID-19 plan could turn into a long, rambling list of, “Oh… and another thing… don’t forget about…” My recommendation is that you think broadly about your goals and then identify the right team to help you achieve those goals.

Identify Your Goals

In order to identify your goals, you’ll also need to recognize that there won’t be a one-size-fits-all plan because every organization has to navigate a different combination of building characteristics, work activities, and cultural factors. Are your goals to keep employees safe, to keep your business productive, and to do your part to reduce the risk of community spread? Are you trying to build trust with your employees, your customers, and your community? Do your goals include limiting your liability? Everyone should have explicit goals, and everything in your plan should serve the goals you have identified.

Put the Right Team in Place

After you identify your goals, you will need to identify the right team to help you achieve them. Anyone with an internet connection can tell you the Center for Disease Control recommendations for cloth face coverings, but it’s a lot harder to know how to maintain the trust of your co-workers when they may not feel safe. What are the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers recommendations for HVAC systems? That’s easy. What should I do with my specific HVAC system? That’s more challenging. A complex organization may need to track and manage a lot of information, requiring a team that can make large amounts of data understandable. If you have a complex operation, achieving your goals might require industrial hygienists, building systems specialists, data analysts and communications experts. Does everyone need a bunch of PhDs to develop and implement a good COVID-19 plan? Absolutely not. Just ensure that your choice of team members makes sense if you want a sensible plan.

What Should You Do?

Having clear goals and a qualified team put you in a strong position to have a realistic and useful plan. If you reach out to MFA or some other consultant for help with anything related to COVID-19, be ready to share your goals and your team. If that’s a difficult conversation, I think you’ve found your starting point. Think clearly about the forest before navigating through the trees.

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Bill Beadie, CIH

Principal Industrial Hygienist

(360) 947-2200