How to Make Your Workplace Safer for New and Returning Employees

Review Guidance Issued by Your State, the CDC, and OSHA

Workers returning to the office, socially distancing

 Getty Images/Orbon Alija

In the spring of 2020, state governments forced many businesses to close to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Most small businesses have since reopened, at least in some capacity. A poll conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife showed that 86% of small businesses are either fully or partially open. Still, 70% of the respondents are concerned about financial hardship due to prolonged closures and more than half (58%) worry about having to permanently close. They have a reason to be concerned. According to research organization Opportunity Insights, small business revenue decreased by 19.1% between January 20 and August 9, 2020.

For small business owners, reopening during a pandemic poses a number of challenges. One is how to encourage fearful employees to return to the workplace. Another challenge is the specific actions a business should take and the procedures it should follow when reopening. A third issue is safety. To succeed in a pandemic, businesses need to have protocols in place to protect their employees and customers from the coronavirus.

Employee Concerns to Address

Employees may be reluctant to return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic for several reasons. One, of course, is fear of contracting the coronavirus. Employees may worry about getting sick themselves and spreading the virus to their family members. 

Another major concern for many employees is child care. The pandemic has compounded child care challenges for many working parents, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Numerous child care providers have shut down or limited their availability. Schools in some areas have replaced on-site learning with virtual classes. As a result, many children who would ordinarily spend their days in a school building under the supervision of teachers will now be at home.

Steps That Businesses Should Take

To survive in a pandemic, businesses need to be flexible so they can adapt to consumers' needs. They need to plan their reopening carefully so they understand the changes they must make. Here are some key steps in the reopening process:

Educate Yourself

The first step in the reopening process is to gather information about the coronavirus from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and other reliable sources. You need to understand what the virus is, how it spreads, and how it can be contained. Be sure to read your state's reopening guidance. All states have issued reopening guidelines, but the rules and recommendations vary from state to state. For instance, some states require face coverings in the workplace while others don't.

The CDC provides guidance specifically for bar and restaurant owners. It explains in detail various steps businesses can take to minimize their coronavirus risks. Meanwhile, OSHA offers advice for restaurants and beverage distributors but its guidance is directed at businesses that offer takeout or curbside pickup.

Identify Hazards and Ways to Mitigate Them

The second step is to evaluate your workplace and identify any hazards that could expose workers to the virus. Hazards vary by industry and are largely determined by the tasks workers perform.

OSHA ranks workers from lower risk to very high risk based on their contact with people known or suspected of being infected with the coronavirus. For example, remote workers have low risks, grocery store clerks have medium risks, and health care workers treating COVID-19 patients have high risks.  You can evaluate your workers' risks by considering whom they interact with and the frequency of those interactions throughout the workday. Unless they are employed in the health care industry, most workers have low- or medium-risk jobs.

An obvious COVID-19 hazard in the workplace is a sick worker. Employers should institute a clear policy that all sick workers must stay home.

Once you've identified your COVID-19 workplace hazards, decide how to mitigate them. The CDC outlines numerous strategies for protecting workers. Examples are social distancing, routine health checks, proper hygiene, effective sanitation, and the use of face coverings.

Update Your Business Plan

The third step in the reopening process is to update your business plan and budget to reflect changes you will make to mitigate COVID-19 hazards. Be sure to consider your employees' concerns when making your plans. For instance, some workers' child care issues might be resolved by a flexible schedule or a remote work option.

Some changes you make may generate out-of-pocket costs. For example, you plan to supply all workers with face masks and to separate their work stations with plexiglass shields. Other changes may reduce your revenue, such as a decision to limit the number of customers in your place of business by 50%.

Communicate Your Plan

A key step in the reopening process is communicating your plan to employees, customers, suppliers, and other business associates. Explain the actions you are taking to limit their exposure to the coronavirus. If there are procedures you expect them to follow (such as wearing face masks and staying six feet apart), you'll need to provide instructions.

Communicating your reopening plan to employees can help allay their fears about returning to the workplace. Workers may feel less anxious if they know the steps you're taking to protect them from the coronavirus.

The CDC recommends using multiple channels to educate your workers about your COVID-19 prevention measures. Your options include letters, small group meetings, bulletin boards, posters, videos, text messages, and social media. Your message should be clear, concise, and expressed in employees' preferred language.

Your customers want a steady flow of consistent, relevant communications that address their concerns about the pandemic. You can assess their concerns by actively listening to them talk about their problems. There are many ways to communicate your reopening plan. Examples are press releases, advertisements, your website, and social media.

Implement and Monitor Your Plan

The final step is to implement your reopening plan and monitor the results. Once your business is operating, you should check in with your employees, customers, vendors, and other business associates frequently. Listen to their feedback and make any necessary adjustments. Communicate changes promptly and transparently.

Safety Protocols to Implement

A third major challenge in the reopening process is safety. Most employers can protect their workers from the coronavirus by emphasizing basic infection prevention measures like frequent hand washing, staying home when sick, and routinely cleaning and disinfecting the work environment.

Ask Sick Workers to Stay Home

To help keep the coronavirus out of the workplace, employers should ask their employees to stay home if they have symptoms of COVID-19. Workers should self-isolate until they meet the CDC's criteria for returning to work. For most workers, this means staying home until 10 days have passed since their symptoms began. Also, they should not have had a fever for at least 24 hours without taking fever-reducing medication. 

Sick workers are more likely to stay home if they know they won't lose pay during their absence from the workplace. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires businesses with fewer than 500 employees to provide up to 80 hours of paid leave to each full-time worker. Workers are entitled to this leave if they have COVID-19 symptoms, have been ordered to quarantine, or are caring for someone who must quarantine. Employers can use tax credits to obtain reimbursement for the cost of providing coronavirus-related leave.

The FFCRA affords each full-time worker up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a child whose school or care provider is unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.

Testing and Health Checks

Employers have several options for monitoring workers' health. These include virus tests to check for active infections, antibody tests to check for previous infections, symptom surveys, and temperature checks.

In a phone interview with The Balance, Dr. Anthony Harris, Chief Innovation Officer and Associate Medical Director for WorkCare, recommended that employers conduct baseline virus and antibody testing of all workers before the business opens. Once operations have resumed, employers should test workers periodically. Dr. Harris also suggested daily temperature checks and symptom surveys (questionnaires listing COVID-19 symptoms), noting that any workers who have a fever or symptoms of COVID-19 should be sent home.

Social Distancing

Because COVID-19 can be transmitted from person to person, an effective way to protect workers and customers is keep people at least six feet apart—a strategy now commonly known as “social distancing.” Here are some ways businesses can practice social distancing in the workplace.

  • Limit the number of customers inside the premises. Mark the floor with tape at six-foot intervals. Install a drive-through window or offer curbside pickup.
  • Institute flexible worksites and schedules so employees can telecommute or work staggered shifts.
  • Move workstations farther apart and separate them with plexiglass partitions.
  • Stagger breaks and rearrange common areas so workers stay at least six feet apart.
  • Replace in-person meetings with virtual ones.
  • Be sure workers, customers, and others on your premises wear face coverings as required or recommended by your state's guidance.

Personal Protective Equipment

OSHA requires employers to provide workers in medium or high-exposure risk groups with personal protective equipment (PPE) to minimize their exposure to the coronavirus. The types of PPE needed depend on your industry and the nature of the work employees perform. Workers with medium exposure risk may need to wear a combination of gloves, a gown, a face mask, and/or a face shield or goggles.

The CDC recommends that bars and restaurants require all workers to wear cloth face coverings. While cloth masks aren't technically PPE, the agency says they are an effective tool for slowing the spread of COVID-19 and should be washed regularly in a bleach solution and dried with high heat.


Another important safety protocol is cleaning and disinfecting the workplace. Normal routine cleaning with soap and water will decrease the amount of the virus on surfaces, reducing the risk of exposure. The use of disinfectants will also help reduce the risk. According to Dr. Harris, employers can use any disinfectant designated by the EPA as effective against COVID-19. A list of such products is available on the EPA's website and includes many common household items like Clorox Bleach and Lysol All Purpose Cleaner. Dr. Harris advised that employers focus their cleaning efforts on common areas and places that receive the most foot traffic.

Key Takeaways

  • Many employees fear they'll contract COVID-19 if they return to work. You can allay some of their fears by sharing your reopening plan with them.
  • Before you reopen, be sure to review guidance provided by your state, the CDC, and OSHA.
  • Your reopening plan should include safety protocols like social distancing, frequent hand-washing, the use of face coverings, and proper sanitation.