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The action plan employers should follow to secure protective equipment for staff ASAP as they consider reopening their offices

Face masks

  • As nonessential businesses begin to reopen, ensuring employee health and safety is critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, and more are necessary to keep employees healthy as the back-to-work shift begins.
  • Even if you aren't planning to bring workers back to the office until late May or June, now is the time to order PPE, but beware: It's a seller's market.
  • IBM's Watson Health has created a free platform to help organizations find reputable suppliers, while the National Safety Council has launched a nationwide task force to leverage best practices across industries, offering "playbooks" to ensure employee safety.
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After weeks of working from home amid the COVID-19 outbreak, states are beginning to allow nonessential business to reopen, which means employees will eventually be returning to their workplaces. As the back-to-work shift gets underway, protecting the health of staff members is key to stopping the spread of coronavirus.

With that in mind, the leading nonprofit organization in the country, the National Safety Council (NSC), has launched SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns, a nationwide task force comprised of Fortune 500 companies, leading safety organizations, and public-health entities to ensure employee safety through the pandemic. 

Starting the week of April 27, SAFER will begin a weekly roll out of general and sector-specific "playbooks," leveraging best practices to help US businesses of all sizes across industries bring employees back to their typical work environments safely.

Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO of NSC

"Literally, the opportunities for us to do this and do this well truly is at the heart of our ability to get to the other side of the pandemic," said Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO of NSC. "Companies coming back up to work safely and not spreading the disease is going to be the difference between us getting back and having the engine running with an industry, or have it be delayed. And so dealing with this and having the right kind of safety mechanisms in place is paramount for us all."

The need for personal protective equipment

A large component in ensuring worker safety is the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). This gear, which includes face masks, gloves, and possibly protective suits, depending on the environment, has traditionally been used by healthcare personnel to protect themselves and patients while providing care. But the COVID-19 outbreak has made PPE a consideration for employees who are returning to work across industries. Due to unprecedented demand, however, finding and securing protective equipment for workers won't be easy.

David Yanez, CEO of Andonix

"Ensuring PPE for office employees is a big challenge, especially because most of it is going to healthcare workers first," said David Yanez, CEO of Andonix, a SaaS platform that upskills frontline employees and educates them about workplace safety. "The supply chain is shattered, and we don't have enough local manufacturing capabilities to produce." 

As Yanez pointed out, in the US, there are at least 25 million frontline workers across healthcare, hospitality, food service, and manufacturing. 

"We estimate that at least 10 million more workers need to go back to the office," he said. "In a short time, that creates a demand of at least 35 million face masks per day. If every working person needs to use one, that market is going to be difficult to supply in the short term."

Yanez and other executives, who are sourcing PPE for their own employees and assisting other organizations in finding reputable vendors, offered their insight on how to secure this vital gear.

Make a list of the supplies your company needs, and get started ordering now

Adrienne Cooper, chief people officer at FitSmallBusiness.com, a digital business publication, has already begun planning to bring the company's 150 employees back to its New York City headquarters. She said one of the first steps is evaluating what you need to keep employees safe in the workplace.

Adrienne Cooper, chief people officer at FitSmallBusiness.com

"Create a precise list of what your business will need based on the type of work you do, and the needs of your employees based on the risk factors for them and their work," she said. "Our company's PPE needs will be relatively basic: face masks, gloves. Using this PPE will supplement having hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, paper towels, and cleaning solutions that are approved by the EPA for use against the virus that causes COVID-19." 

She added that her team will have a no-touch thermometer and pulse oximeter at the office for employees to screen for COVID-19 symptoms like a fever and low oxygen levels. "We will also survey employees to see if they have a thermometer for testing at home before coming to the office, and will consider purchasing a basic thermometer for use at home for employees who do not have one," she explained.

Mary Kurek, president and CEO of Frontrunners Development, Inc.

Mary Kurek, president and CEO of Frontrunners Development, Inc., explained that her company has shifted its focus from business development for innovators in impact spaces to utilizing its network to source supplies relative to the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's an extremely challenging environment," she said. "Know what you need specifically, how many of a particular item you need, and your turnaround requirements. Keep in mind that most items you might want are disposable, so, instead of 1,000 masks for 1,000 employees, you'll be looking at ordering more than that."

Even if your company isn't planning to bring workers back until late May or June, now is the time to find a supplier and place your PPE order. 

Dean Calhoun, certified industrial hygienist and president and CEO of Affygility Solutions

"With the amount of PPE that you will likely need, you will want to have a variety of sizes, and it is unlikely the Walmarts, Home Depots, and Lowes of the world will be able to meet your needs," said Dean Calhoun, certified industrial hygienist and president and CEO of Affygility Solutions, which provides environmental, health, and safety consulting services to the life science industry.

Kurek noted that most vendors will not sell directly to a company that only wants hundreds or even a few thousand.

"There are minimum quantity order requirements for almost all of the usual items that are needed now," she said. "Start working on securing the items now and think about partnering with other businesses, even in the same industry with the same needs, to secure a large batch to be delivered to one location and divided out—like a co-op." 

Yanez agreed. "For smaller companies, it makes sense to form coalitions with regional chambers or other organizations to increase purchasing power," he said.

Once you've got your list ready, assign one person to be the coordinator to keep things straight, Kurek added. Having a single point person who handles the order can minimize confusion and avoid either potential shortfalls or stockpiles.  

"If you require to know the point of origination for a product, list that, model numbers, and every detail you can think of in your request for a quote," she said. "That will facilitate you getting the right information up front instead of having to spend days in email-ville. If you don't know, ask the vendor/supplier to send everything they have on the product. Save all correspondence."

Vet your supplier to ensure they can deliver what you need

Selecting a reputable PPE vendor is key, experts agreed, but it isn't always easy. Cooper noted that you may need to hunt for a source, as some vendors are only selling to healthcare facilities right now. She also recommended looking at average delivery times to see if those align with your timeframe. 

"Trust and the ordering process, in most cases, are the biggest hurdles," Kurek noted. "By the time companies get through their PO (purchase order) process, the items can get sold out from underneath you. A legitimate quote from a vendor should come with an expiration date. Pay close attention to that. Once the quote expires, you may not have anything to purchase. It's a seller's market now."

Recognizing that trust is an ongoing concern, IBM's Watson Health launched a free platform, IBM Rapid Supplier Connect, which uses blockchain technology to vet sources and assist companies, hospitals, and municipalities in finding reputable and ethical vendors.

Yanez noted that if small- and mid-sized companies are able to find PPE online or in brick-and-mortar stores, "the prices are unreasonably high." To help companies through the pandemic, Andonix is launching a marketplace, Safely Pass, to supply PPE to small- and mid-sized businesses at a fair price.

To further assist with budgeting, Kurek recommended setting up an ongoing supply list for weekly or monthly deliveries. Additionally, she suggested finding a registered distributor inside the US if possible to save on shipping.  

Be prepared to pay, at least partially, now

Most suppliers will likely require at least partial payment upfront, said Kurek.  

"We've seen lots of different kinds of deals, such as proof of funds with a purchase order, escrow, or 30 to 50% deposit, with the rest due before shipping," she said. "In any case, ask for terms up front and also ask for a 'proof-of-life' video if your order is large so that you are confident the product exists if the items are claimed to be in existence already." Keep in mind that masks and some other items that are produced on demand might not be ready until they are rolling off the line. 

If you're expecting equipment that's coming from abroad and your order is significant, Kurek suggested asking for an international inspection report, which verifies that the goods are exactly what you ordered and in working order. 

"You should get that before shipping occurs," she added. 

Ensure employees have guidelines for using PPE properly 

Brian Stern, president of recruiting firm Modern Hire

Before bringing employees and prospective hires back to the office, employers should provide them with specific guidelines to ensure their safety, noted Brian Stern, president of recruiting firm Modern Hire.

"At Modern Hire, we're providing our employees with a comprehensive set of guidelines for their safe return to the office," he said. "This includes not only specific cleanliness precautions of their workspace, break area, conference rooms, and restrooms, but also general safe social distancing and gathering guidelines. We're also providing each employee with their own mask and other supplies to promote safety while still supporting a collaborative work environment."

Once employees have been provided with guidelines, it's important to train them on the proper use of the PPE and document that training, noted Calhoun.

"All PPE devices have limitations, and the improper use or false sense of security presented by wearing PPE could present a greater danger," he added.

Christian_Lanng_Tradeshift_2k_3

Christian Lanng, cofounder and CEO of Tradeshift, a supply-chain marketplace platform used by over one million companies across 190 countries, pointed out that gloves, when not used properly, can actually cause more harm than good.

"What happens is people touch stuff they shouldn't with gloves, then they touch their face," said Lanng. "We touch our faces on average two to three thousand times per day. So, it's actually much better to not wear gloves, or if you have to wear gloves, wear one glove. That way, if you touch [something] that you're unsure about, you can use your hand with the glove and then the other for everything else. But not wearing gloves and practicing really good hand washing is actually much better."

Peter Dooley, senior health and safety project coordinator at National Coalition Occupational Safety and Health

Added Peter Dooley, senior health and safety project coordinator at National Coalition Occupational Safety and Health, "Having workers be able to communicate issues or concerns without any stigma or fear of repercussions is important." 

Keep close track of PPE supplies and who they go to

If your company has received extra PPE supplies for future use, keep those under lock and key, suggested Calhoun.

"Keep a log on what you issued to each employee and what dates," he said. "We have had reports from clients that their stock shelves of PPE are becoming empty because employees are stealing the supplies and taking them home to their friends and neighbors."

Consider alternatives if PPE is hard to come by, and remember that social distancing is still important

If your organization is having trouble securing the proper supplies, consider it an opportunity to reevaluate. Lanng said the pandemic presents an opportunity to reconsider "best practices from the past."

"Ask yourself, 'Do we really need all of us to be in the workplace to be productive?'" he said. "Same with travel. We can deliver our services to our customers as well via message as we can by flying into another city and meeting in person. Those are the things we should really challenge ourselves and ask, 'Are they really necessary?' That will have a lot of benefits, not just with people and time, but also for the planet and the resources we're conserving."

Calhoun agreed. "As with the use of any personal protective equipment, PPE should be the last consideration in developing a strategy for preventing exposures," he said. "Engineering controls, such as contactless systems, [and] administrative controls, such as canceling in-person conference room meetings, social distancing, and restriction on outside visitors, should always be considered first. In and of itself, the use of PPE is always subject to significant human error, including improper placement/removal, poor storage, etc."

As employees reenter their traditional workspaces, ensuring their health and safety is critical. Securing PPE from a trusted source in a timely manner is vital to the hope of returning to business as usual.

SEE ALSO: Getting your paperwork in order can give you a leg up when applying to the Paycheck Protection Program. Here's all the information you should have on hand.

NOW READ: The action plan employers should follow when reopening their offices to ensure the safest and smoothest transition possible

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