As America recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, employers will require support in returning their employees safely back to work. This support needs to be provided by occupational and environmental medicine (OEM) physicians who have special training and expertise in return-to-work procedures including those issues that pertain to epidemiology and testing measures needed for addressing communicable diseases.
In response to this need, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) has launched Getting America Safely Back to Work, an information campaign to advise businesses and the public about the importance of returning to work safely, and the specific role that OEM doctors can and should play in that process. The campaign, which includes a 2-page guidance document on How OEM Physicians Can Help Employers Safely Return Employees to Work, is also designed to help put employers in touch with OEM physicians who can help them navigate through the myriad return-to-work issues they will face.
The question of how and when some businesses will be able to return their employees to work depends on a variety of factors that are well understood by OEM physicians. These specialists are qualified to provide support to businesses and workers in every type of industry, including health care, transportation, general industry, and manufacturing to name just a few. Physicians in this specialty are proficient in addressing issues that involve the health and productivity of workers, their families, and communities.
“Different industries will encounter diverse and unique challenges in returning employees to work and OEM physicians understand how to interpret and apply guidance and advisories from federal and state authorities in different occupational settings,” said Stephen Frangos, MD, ACOEM President. “We are also well versed in understanding the challenges imposed by infectious diseases such as COVID-19,” he said.
Employers should consider and institute policies to help protect returning employees. Work modifications may be necessary to facilitate return to work in a safe manner. The distinction between essential vs. non-essential workers must also be considered in the context of return to work. Criteria for return must balance workplace safety with the urgency of maintaining essential economic activities – for example, health care, emergency response, food, and energy production. OEM physicians recognize that return-to-work guidelines may need to differentiate between workers on the basis of job functions and essentiality.
Return-to-work policies must balance the safety of workers with the available scientific evidence that individual workers are immune and/or not contagious. Maintaining safe distances and the use of safe hygiene practices, such as face coverings/masks where appropriate and hand washing and hand sanitizers should be enforced. To help in the transitioning of employees back to work, it is important that return-to-work policies be clear, concise, well communicated, and consistent with federal and state guidance.
While no single approach will be ideal for all workplaces, OEM physicians have the skills to help employers determine which specific strategies will make their workplaces safer going forward and should be sought out by employers to facilitate the safe return of employees through evaluation, testing, work modifications, and development of appropriate workplace policies. Employers can find an OEM provider for COVID-19 related services, by accessing https://acoem.org/COVID-19-Provider-Directory.
The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) is an international society of 4,000 occupational and environmental physicians and other health care professionals. The College provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments. ACOEM maintains a database of physicians available to consult with businesses regarding COVID-19. As our understanding of the pandemic evolves, advice to employers will change with time as the underlying science advances. For the most up-to-date information, visit the ACOEM COVID-19 webpage at https://acoem.org/COVID-19.