As news of a number of possible vaccines for COVID-19 spreads around the world, there are feelings of positivity for the first time in a long while that life might soon return to some kind of normality.
There will be some long-lasting changes, of course, with distancing and the wearing of masks likely to be with us well into 2021. And Governor Brian Kemp has announced that COVID restrictions will be in place until January at the earliest.
Small business owners in Georgia can finally start to consider how their companies will move forwards in a post-coronavirus world. Clearly, creating a safe working environment for their employees – protecting the welfare of clients and customers – will very much be at the top of the agenda.
Changes may need to be made in order to be COVID-secure while adhering to general health and safety requirements, but for small business owners, these are times to be proactive and confident about the future of your company.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways the business landscape has changed for many small firms in the state, and how you can ensure you are legally compliant and safe on your return to the workplace.
COVID safety and prevention
There are multiple facets to keeping your workplace COVID-secure, both in terms of protecting your employees from the virus and, in the worst-case scenario, preventing its spread should it find its way into your employees.
The Department of Public Health (DPH) in Georgia has recommended that employees work remotely where possible, and to stagger the hours that your workforce is in the office (or whatever your work environment may be). Non essential travel should also be avoided where possible.
Georgia DPH also falls in line with the guidelines of the United States Department of Labor, and specifically its Occupational Safety and Health Administration protocol. These measures are designed to help protect employees and customers – many of these are general and relevant to all small businesses, no matter what sector you operate in.
Many of these you will know already, but it is worth repeating them anyway. Employees should be able to frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer – even those working outside or on construction sites. If access to water is an issue, make sure you have bottles of hand gel to give out as necessary.
Keeping a distance of six feet between employees at all times is going to be difficult for some businesses, but you should strive unless absolutely impossible to make this happen. Also, the sharing of equipment – be it office stationery, telephones or construction tools – should be kept to a minimum, with the item thoroughly sanitized before and after use.
In all sectors, you should be looking out for signs of COVID transmission, particularly those individuals who show symptoms of the virus. Some members of staff simply won’t be aware of their health changes or may not want to take time off from their job on sick leave as they need full payment. Look out for those with a consistent cough, and where anybody complains of a loss of smell and taste. As their boss, it is your duty both to them and the rest of your employees and customers to ensure they are isolated and off your site as soon as is safely possible.
Face masks should be worn where close contact with others is unavoidable, and don’t forget where strong cleaning products are used to sanitize a workspace you should provide staff with the necessary protective equipment to help prevent them from harm.
As the research shows, certain groups of people – the older generation and those with respiratory problems as two main examples – are more vulnerable than others to COVID-19, so you should consider ways to ‘shield’ these groups as much as possible. If you work in a public-facing environment, try to minimize the amount of time that the vulnerable spend interacting with members of the public.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a mantra of ‘plan, prepare and respond’, and this trio of actions will help you to ensure your small business is COVID-secure and ready to return safely and efficiently.
General health and safety
What with the focus being on COVID-proofing a workspace, it would be easy to lose sight of general health and safety pointers at this time.
But that would be foolish and potentially very costly, as basic health and safety provision is required by law in Georgia and the rest of the United States.
Georgia’s DPH has published a range of guidelines to help small business owners to create a safe working environment, and conforming to their recommended measures is an excellent starting point.
Adhering to the Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) Act is another essential consideration in your return to the workplace, and so protecting your employees from hazards and harm – be it COVID or any other potential risks that could cause injury or illness – is absolutely essential. The penalties for non-compliance simply aren’t worth thinking about for a small business owner.
And so it is essential that you get yourself back into the mindset of effective health and safety practice once more.
Is your workplace free of risk and danger?
Where some elements of risk cannot be completely removed, are they mitigated to the best of your employees?
Have you provided your employees with the relevant equipment and materials to undertake their jobs safely?
These are the questions you need to ask prior to your return to work, and any solutions acted upon before you open your door to employees and/or customers once more.
Now more than ever, it is imperative that you have the necessary insurance coverage in place. In the state of Georgia, this is required in almost all workplaces.
Specifically, that includes workers’ compensation insurance, which is a level of cover that protects you as a small business owner should an employee suffer injury or illness in their work.
The insurance will cover any medical bills and emergency treatment costs that the individual will need to pay, while also catering for lost wages while they recuperate at home or in a medical facility.
If you don’t have workers’ compensation insurance in Georgia, or any other state for that matter, the financial penalties you could face could be incredibly damaging – it’s not uncommon in the most extreme cases for business owners to have to shut up shop permanently due to the financial costs of an employee lawsuit.
Often, these insurance policies cost less than you might think, and the protection and peace of mind they afford the owner of a small business is priceless.