19 Jan 2022 By By Alice Davies
When your business relies on warehouses and distribution centres, a global pandemic can seem pretty daunting - especially one where more and more transmittable variants occur (we’re looking at you, Omicron).
According to the CDC, COVID-19 is known to spread through close contact with other people, as well as frequent handling of equipment and then touching your face or mouth. Warehouse workers often work in close proximity to each other, and handle different types of equipment throughout the day. This isn’t about scaremongering; it’s about keeping your employees safe and minimising the risk of transmission.
Staff absent levels are high at the moment (and rightly so, to help stop the spread) - but deliveries and shipments still need to be packed. To help keep your staff safe and continue meeting quotas, here are some of our top tips for slowing down the spread of Omicron in the warehouse.
If your workplace hasn’t already done so, having a COVID-19 workplace health and safety plan in place will allow you to protect your employees and outline the correct guidelines to follow. Keep an eye out for any local authority changes or government policies that come into effect that might mean making updates to your plan.
Having someone who oversees your COVID-19 policy is an easy way to keep it up-to-date. With an on-site coordinator, any new regulations that come into place for warehouses can be implemented smoothly, without any disagreements over whose responsibility it should be.
What exactly should you include in a COVID-19 H&S plan? Although the below list isn’t exhaustive, it’s definitely a good place to start:
- Think about all members of staff, not just warehouse workers (cleaners, maintenance etc.)
- Have a visitor sign-in process that covers all bases, like temperature checks and contact details in case of an outbreak in the warehouse
- Update employees on who their COVID-19 coordinator is, so they report any concerns or thoughts over your implemented processes.
- Update your sick leave policies, so that staff don’t feel afraid to take a sick day (we mean actual pay too)
- Implement daily health checks, such as temperature and symptom screening, but ensure you maintain confidentiality when it comes to this. Not everyone wants to share their symptoms with their work colleagues!
Keep updating your COVID-19 plan in line with government advice, as well as your own common sense. The Omicron variant has been flagged as being highly contagious, but compared to the first lockdown, the government doesn’t appear to be implementing the same strict measures. Protecting your staff is the most important factor in your COVID-19 plan.
A hostile work environment can be detrimental to staff - not just from a mental health perspective, but also physical. If employees are worried about taking time off or missing out on pay, it can breed an unhealthy situation - and we’re not just talking about spreading COVID. Employees may feel like they have to hide their symptoms - honesty is vital when it comes to stopping the spread.
The rules are changing daily when it comes to self-isolation periods, but that shouldn’t deter you from implementing your own. The Omicron variant is particularly contagious, which means more staff are likely to become ill - and the more staff become ill, the harder it will be to fulfil orders. Encourage your staff to self-isolate and recover at home (without fear of missing out on pay). This is good practice to have in regards to all contagious illnesses, not just COVID.
You can also take temperatures of your staff on entry and exit from their shifts. This isn’t invasive and can help spot symptoms before someone starts to feel ill. If possible, encourage staff to take a lateral flow test before their shift begins (but don’t make this mandatory, especially with the significant lack of tests available at the moment).
Although you can’t control how clean your employees are, you can put measures in place to manage personal hygiene in the warehouse. Fully stocked utility cupboards, with paper towels, hand wash, hand sanitiser, face masks, and antibacterial wipes will ensure you don’t run out and there are always supplies available for people to use.
Signs and prompts will remind staff to wash their hands regularly and how to sneeze i.e. not all over colleagues and products, but into their elbows or a tissue (which is then thrown away). Make sure you include different languages on your signs, so that everyone can practice good hygiene.
If someone is suspected of having COVID-19, or it’s been confirmed, don’t put your other staff at risk and ensure all shared areas are cleaned down thoroughly. Regularly disinfecting and cleaning throughout the day will help prevent the spread. This may mean offering more hours to your cleaning staff - all worth it in the long run to keep your warehouse employees safe and well. You may even wish to close off any enclosed warehouse areas, so that thorough cleaning can take place.
It can be hard to social distance in a warehouse - even the biggest of units! Equipment is often touched by multiple people throughout the day and / or night - and generally warehouses are just busy places. But there are things you can do to alleviate overcrowding and the spread of COVID-19.
Change shift patterns, so that you don’t create bottlenecks with people coming in and out. This could just look like half an hour different to start and finish times - but make sure you communicate this with your employees before making any changes. This works for breaks too; stagger the times your staff go on their breaks, so not everyone is hankering for a coffee or chocolate bar at the same time - and the toilets don’t get clogged up (in both senses…). If social distancing is tricky on the warehouse floor, use partitions to create a barrier between staff.
You could even change the entrance and exits of the warehouse, so staff aren’t crossing paths when leaving and entering. Keep busy areas well ventilated if social distancing isn’t easily implemented, such as opening windows and doors, or using portable air filtration units. Try not to sacrifice staff comfort however; having a cold work area can have negative impacts on health too.
Again, the rules change regularly when it comes to wearing face masks. Some of your employees may feel perturbed if it’s mandatory to wear them at work. However, they are effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19, as well as other illnesses, it would be remiss not to advise your staff to wear them. If your employees feel comfortable wearing face masks and don’t have any health conditions that stop them from doing so, signs encouraging staff to wear them can help reduce transmission. Providing employees with PPE and face masks may make them more likely to wear them.
Certain brands have been in the news (and been under fire) recently due to new rules around letting unvaccinated employees come into work - or even have a job. You can’t force your staff to have the COVID-19 vaccine, but you can encourage them to do so. In a warehouse environment, taking as many precautions as possible is essential to stopping the spread - that includes having vaccinated teams.
Communication is key; when your employees know the risks of working in a warehouse, but can see you’ve implemented a strong response to the Omicron variant, this creates a much more trusting workplace. For more guidance on dealing with COVID-19 in a warehouse or factory, take a look at GOV.UK.
As always, you should follow government guidelines when making changes to your warehouse’s approach to COVID-19, and the above points are suggestions based on research by Shipster.
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