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Engineering controls key for protecting workers from COVID-19

Posted On: Apr. 19, 2021 1:59 PM CST


Drafting an infectious diseases safety protocol with an emphasis on engineering controls to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has helped many employers successfully bring back workers, according to a safety expert at the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.’s 2021 conference, which was held virtually.

Employers need to adopt a disease protocol for COVID-19 and future outbreaks, said Joe Whitlock, senior industrial hygienist at EFI Global Inc. in Hilliard, Ohio, who answered questions posed by Columbus, Ohio-based Michael Lorms, risk services manager for Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc. during the pre-taped session that was posted Monday.

“There will be another biological event, we just don’t know how soon and how severe,” Mr. Whitlock said. Employers often have a “short memory” on these types of events, but in the past 20 years they have seen outbreaks — albeit far less widespread — of severe acute respiratory syndrome, H1N1 and Zika virus, among others, he said.

“Organizations have to plan and be ready for the next event,” he said. “Not a lot of organizations thought about this or were prepared for it … but definitely have that part of your program documented, because there will be another event.”

While that protocol should include social distancing, strategies for monitoring employee behavior, mandatory facial coverings, sanitizing stations and barricades, engineering controls are also crucial, he said.

“With just face coverings, you’re going to get a 20% risk reduction,” Mr. Whitlock said. “If you look at ventilation improvements, that can get you a 90 to 95% relative risk reduction. Focusing on those engineering controls is the best way to protect your workforce and customers and clients at your location, he said.

Such air-quality engineering controls do not necessarily have to be costly, he said, noting that “good old-fashioned HEPA portable filters work really well — they have a 99.97% efficiency for filtering out the virus. Obviously, pricing has been going up on those units considerably from a year ago from supply and demand, but you can get really good units in retail outlets.”

One of Mr. Whitlock’s clients, a third-generation dental office, implemented engineering controls such as UV lights and ionizers, as well as enhanced cleaning protocols and other protective measures, that protected workers and clients from COVID-19 infection and also resulted in an “enormous decrease in absenteeism” among staff.

“Dental hygienists and front-facing staff members were notorious to be out on so many sick days,” he said. “They saw an increase in business … and a decrease in absenteeism just from cold and flu season. They thought the return on investment would be worth it, and it has paid off.”

More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here.