Skip to content

Illustration by Security Management

Pandemic Spread Places New Pressure to Protect Essential Workers

A U.S. government task force is weighing recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and plans to issue recommendations in the next few days, CNN reports. The decision would be a reversal from previous guidance that only individuals who are sick should wear masks in public.

Other nations, including China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, embraced wearing face masks prior to the coronavirus pandemic that had more than 970,000 confirmed cases and 50,325 deaths as of publishing time.

The decision not to encourage the public to wear masks in the United States and Europe is “a big mistake,” said George Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in an interview with Science magazine.

“This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact,” Gao explained. “Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”

Such guidance could also help protect essential workers who must remain on the job while roughly half of the world’s population is under orders to stay home and limit their movement. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) already recommends that workplaces classified at very high or high risk for exposure provide employees with hand sanitizers, implement social distancing, preventing close contact when possible, and respiratory protection for those who work closely with someone who may be infected.

“Employers should also consider installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards, to protect employees where possible,” according to OSHA. “The use of barrier protections, such as sneeze guards, is common practice for both infection control and industrial hygiene.”

For essential employees that must interact with the public, like security officers and law enforcement, National Safety Council President and CEO Lorraine Martin said vigilance is required to protect them from contracting the coronavirus.

“Provide disinfectant so workers can clean high-touch surfaces every two hours,” she said. “Make sure they can practice physical distancing recommendations and follow CDC workplace guidelines. We not only need healthy workers today, but we will need a healthy workforce when it comes time to return to usual work environments and routines.”

One measure Britain is taking to help protect essential workers and speed up the recovery process is creating an “immunity passport” that would certify individuals who have recovered from coronavirus.

“We have a stream of work underway on immunity,” said Health Secretary Matthew Hancock. “We are potentially having immunity certificates so that if people have been through it and when the science is clear about the point at which they are then immune, people can then start getting back to normal.”

Some essential workers who are not public facing are being quarantined at their job sites to ensure they can continue to provide services, regardless of if they have protective equipment.

In New York, electrical grid operators and support staffers are living in isolation after testing negative for COVID-19. New York has been hardest hit in the United States by the pandemic and is ramping up its response for essential personnel, but other jurisdictions are taking similar measures, said Jim Robb, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) which regulates the grid.

“Some utilities have started to lay in beds, ready-to-eat meals, all of those kinds of things so their workers can stay on site and not have to mix in society,” Robb said in an interview with NBC News. “Utilities in other parts of the country that aren’t quite at that level of severity are getting prepped for moving into that mode right now.”

In the meantime, Martin also addressed the need for organizational leaders to understand how the stress associated with working with limited staff during a pandemic can take a toll on employees’ physical and mental well-being.

“Business leaders must understand that added stress can lead to spikes in substance use disorders, and 75 percent of businesses have been directly impacted by opioid misuse under usual conditions,” she said. “Caring about employees’ physical and mental wellbeing are paramount.”

Being able to convey empathy in a crisis is paramount to effective communication, said Helio Fred Garcia, a professor of crisis management at New York University and Columbia University.

“One of the things that people are looking for is ratification of their feeling of emotional fragility,” Garcia said in an interview with Security Management. “And when I look at the best statements, whether it’s from CEOs or from university presidents or others, one of the things that I find that is most helpful is a statement that begins with an acknowledgement of people’s anxieties, fears, or uncertainty and feelings of vulnerability. When they do that first, the communication tends to work reasonably well.”

For more information and resources around COVID-19, please visit the ASIS International Disease Outbreak: Security Resources page.