At the beginning of 2020, how many operations in the food and beverage supply chain included employee health measures as part of their business continuity planning? Based on the number of employees who fell ill due to the pandemic and the ripple effect this had across the industry’s workforce, not enough. This has forced the entire supply chain to take a focused, proactive look at how to effectively protect the workforce against contracting and spreading the disease. Implementing protective measures to maintain a healthy workforce is a key component of any business continuity plan, especially during a pandemic.
Where should development of a plan that prioritizes employee health begin? First, gather the facts about how the virus spreads from person to person. Second, choose and develop health mitigation measures required for workforce protection. And third, manage these strategies so that they will remain effective.
Understand How COVID-19 Spreads
The scientific community, as reported through WHO, CDC, and other agencies, has identified numerous facts about SARS-CoV-2. This information includes how the virus is transmitted, how long its incubation period is, what symptoms it causes, and when an infected person is contagious.
The primary mode of transmission is through close contact, which is defined as being within six feet of an infectious individual for 15 consecutive or cumulative minutes. Respiratory droplets and smaller particles that contain the virus are expelled from an infected person through breathing, talking, sneezing, or coughing into the air around the infected person. Any uninfected person in close contact may then inhale enough of the virus to also become infected.
The secondary mode of transmission is through contact transfer, such as shaking the hand of an infected person. Contact transfer can also include touching a surface where the virus is viable, as the coronavirus can remain viable on various types of surfaces for between 24 and 72 hours. An infected person can expel the virus onto these surfaces through respiratory actions or transfer it from a hand used to cover a cough or sneeze. An uninfected person who touches a surface with the virus on it and then touches their mouth, nose, or eyes could potentially inhale enough of the virus to become infected.
Also critical in understanding how to prevent transmission of the virus is its incubation period of five days, with a range of two to 14 days prior to the onset of symptoms. The virus is believed to be most infectious in the 24 to 48 hours before an individual experiences symptoms, and this may last for up to 10 days after symptoms subside. Some individuals remain asymptomatic for the entire time they are infected with the virus, which means they can infect others without ever showing any symptoms of the illness themselves.
Knowing the facts makes it easier to tailor plans and mitigate the transmission risks among workers in facility operations.
Develop Health Mitigation Measures to Protect the Workforce
The first opportunity to control risk is at the entrance to the facility. Screening employees, visitors, and contractors prior to site entry for evidence of fever and illness symptoms will stop symptomatic sick and infectious people from entering the site. Another beneficial tool is a health questionnaire that asks about symptoms and exposure to people who have tested positive.
The pre-entry screening process will eliminate site access to those individuals who represent a clear risk for disease transmission. However, these steps do not eliminate those who are carrying the virus but are not yet showing symptoms or those who will remain asymptomatic. This scenario requires additional measures to protect the workforce against contracting the disease while at work.