All of the industry-specific guidance compiled by AIHA's expert task force of health professionals can be accessed via their newly created website, backtoworksafely.org.
[This podcast was recorded on May 18, 2020.]
Ben DuBose: Larry, how are you?
Larry Sloan: Good. Thanks for having me this afternoon.
BD: No problem. Thank you for joining. I’ll start by letting you explain a little bit about your organization, your role, because a lot of our podcasts we talk specifically to people within the corrosion control, within the protective coatings industries. Your role, while you certainly do things at your organization that can be helpful to our industry, you come at it from a bit more holistic perspective: worker safety. If you could, for our audience, explain for people who aren’t aware of your group, what it is that you generally do.
LS: Absolutely. Let me start out by saying that I am not a certified industrial hygienist. I run the organization, and I’ve been the CEO since late 2016. The whole profession of industrial hygiene is really the best well-kept secret. Unfortunately, but serendipitously, the COVID pandemic has presented a rare opportunity for us as a profession to explain to the general public what it is that we do.
AIHA has been around since 1939. We were founded by non-physician members of a group that used to be called the American Association of Industrial Physicians and Surgeons. That organization has since been renamed, and it represents occupational doctors. The whole profession of industrial hygiene is really part science and part art. The classic definition of the profession is one that is devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, prevention, and control of those environmental factors or stresses in the workplace that could cause sickness, impaired health and well-being. Our role, then, is more than just safety. It’s really more the health perspective of the worker, regardless of the profession or wherever they are actually physically working. More than half of AIHA’s nearly 8500 members are certified industrial hygienists, so that is [0:03:24 inaudible] program. Many others of our members hold other professional designations.
Our mission as a society is to empower those who apply their scientific knowledge to protect all workers from occupational hazards. Just a couple statistics before we move on. These are sobering. Every day, some 275 people die from occupational injuries and illness in the U.S. alone. Approximately 95,000 workers died in 2017 from occupational diseases. And about 3.5 million workers suffered some sort of occupational injury or illness. These are just reported injuries or illness. The actual total may be higher. So it’s quite a grave picture, and that’s something that we’re trying to work toward mitigating over time.
BD: One thing that we’re going to be discussing a lot today — and our listeners, if they want to call it up — you put together a guide, a new website actually, backtoworksafely.org, in which you have a lot of expert industry-specific guidance for both businesses as well as consumers about how they can safely reopen. Before we talk about the elements of the guidance — again, backtoworksafely.org is the website — before we go into what that means for our industries here at NACE, specifically corrosion control, protective coatings — before we get into that, I want to give you an opportunity to explain who your task force is and where this guidance came from. What, generally, is the group that you turn to to put this together, on how businesses can reopen safely?
LS: Sure. It’s an excellent question. In late April, just a few weeks ago, one of AIHA’s former board presidents was very frustrated by the lack of practical guidance that has been developed by the federal government. He was watching FOX News one night, and he had heard that Mark Cuban — that’s the Mark Cuban from Shark Tank — had been appointed to serve on President Trump’s Reopening the Economy Task Force. So, on a lark, he emailed Mr. Cuban, and he (Mr. Cuban) responded. And he challenged our former board president, “Okay, AIHA, why don’t you start developing some simple, practical guidance documents?” — given that our mission is protecting workers, and see where this goes.
So we rose to the challenge. We formed a task force that is now populated by 20 professionals, and we have developed close to a dozen of these guideline documents. The focus of these guideline documents is the small business owner, and it crosses a variety of sectors, including restaurants, retail, hair and nail salons, at-home service providers, construction, and — most relevant to your audience — would be small manufacturers. All of the professionals in this task force are certified industrial hygienists, and they range from mid-career to late-career/retired professionals. So combined, there’s probably several hundred years of combined experience across these individuals. Amongst the group is a gentleman named John Henshaw, who is the former Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA during President George Bush’s first term.
BD: Let’s start by looking at general hygiene tips. I know that we’ll get more specific in terms of industrial components, what it is that our audience may specifically be looking for. But as you mentioned, your guidance goes across a wide range of industries — well beyond what we cover here at NACE. In terms of guidance that can be applied across the board, what are some of the tips that your task force has come up with for how workers and also employers can better protect themselves?
LS: AIHA has some 40 different technical committees, and you can imagine we’ve been quite busy responding to the pandemic. One of the first documents that we created is something called, “Workplace Cleaning for COVID-19.” I had gone ahead and sent you a copy of it, so please feel free to distribute this to your membership. In this document, up front we state that to minimize the risk of exposure to contagious viral deposits from infected employees, contractors, and vendors, the AIHA encourages employers to use the approach of what we call routine enhanced cleaning and disinfection of all workplace surfaces and equipment, in combination with other risk-mitigation measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Just a few tips that I’d like to mention — and again, there’s much more detailed information in this guidance document. First off, we do recommend that folks use the EPA-registered disinfectants that meet their criteria for use against the coronavirus. All the cleaning staff must be well trained in the safe and effective use of personal protective equipment [PPE] and disinfectants.
Just a footnote to mention, when it comes to disinfection and cleaning, despite what you might see in the news, we feel that the use of foggers for broad application of disinfectants is really generally discouraged because you don’t have a good sense of efficacy. They don’t do a great job when you’re just fogging the space. There isn’t enough residence time on the different surfaces. We do recommend that there be periodic third-party oversight to confirm that cleaning and disinfection procedures are being followed. And one thing that we mention in terms of the environmental tests, unfortunately there are a lot of tests out there that state they are able to detect the infectious coronavirus on different surfaces. But we really don’t recommend at this point any validation testing.
Environmental and occupational health professionals should really consider various approaches to assess cleaning and disinfection procedures as they become available. Some of these methods don’t differentiate between what is infectious and what is inactivated. Just because something might detect the presence of a viral fragment doesn’t necessarily mean that it has infection potential. So you want to be mindful of that. Finally, I want to comment that I think most companies should establish a team of environmental service technicians and professionals. You want to ensure that these folks, again, are trained on the proper use and limitations of PPE, the protocols for personal hygiene. Then, equally important, how you’re mixing and applying these approved cleaning and disinfecting agents. Overall, make sure that the program is supervised at a higher level to promote ongoing quality control.
BD: What feedback have you heard so far from more industrial type companies? At NACE, that’s a big part of our audience. Are there any trends yet with regard to what their questions or their needs are at this point, still relatively early in the game?
LS: We recently participated in a U.S. Dept. of Labor survey, and we collected an incredible amount of feedback. Remember, of our 8,500-odd members, about 40 percent of them are consultants. So these folks are working in a variety of industry sectors, including [0:11:15 inaudible], like many of your members. We extract these from [0:11:19 inaudible]… not surprising was shortages of PPE, sanitizers, and thermometers in the workplace. Very common sense.
Another thing that came out of the feedback was the concern that some businesses were reopening too fast without having proper knowledge and training to help with the control of infection, protocols, and then unfortunately the potential for a wave of re-infection that might result. The third theme that we heard was a lot of misinformation, confusion, and fear — the need for education and training for both workers and those that are coming into the workplace, whether they be contractors or vendors. Everybody that enters the workplace needs to understand the proper use and limitations of these homemade masks, PPE, and other infection prevention measures. If you are donning an N95 respirator, which many of your constituents may not be familiar with, OSHA does have some strict regulations concerning the use of the N95. You don’t just slap it in. In order for it to be used properly, there are some guidance requirements that need to be followed. So a homemade mask, if you will, or a bandana, is very different than an officially certified NIOSH N95 respirator. So please keep that in mind.
Speaking to the general public, members of the general public need to understand, again, the proper use and limitations of masks versus other PPE. What we are recommending for the healthcare worker is really different than what we recommend for your members, those that are working in a more traditional industrial space.
BD: Anecdotally, one of the topics that comes up a lot when I speak to people in the industry about the current working environment, is liability. What would you tell employers that are concerned about potential liability issues? And do you have any advice on that front regarding some of the steps that they should consider as they weigh potentially bringing staff back to an office — or to a jobsite, I should say?
LS: Absolutely. This is an incredibly complex issue. It is indeed a hot topic among business leaders, along with the President, members of Congress, state leaders, and many others for good reason. Many businesses have already taken a serious hit, a financial hit, during this pandemic. As one might imagine, legal expenses and financial liability are rising from workers who contract COVID-19 at work — could threaten to harm these businesses even more. If they have workers get sick and employers have to go out of business, it could obviously increase unemployment and harm the economy and make a bad situation even worse. This is a real threat, and it is no wonder that it’s on the minds of workers and employers these days.
One of the first things to keep in mind is that most people who contract the virus either don’t experience symptoms or their symptoms are not severe enough to land them in the hospital. We feel that financial ruin as a result of COVID-19 related to workers’ comp is a relatively lower-probability event even though the possibility does exist. However, this is all the more reason why all employers need to do everything that they can to protect workers by implementing these smart practices that I discussed earlier and what are outlined in our safe return to work guideline documents. Ben, this is an evolving issue, and we would advise all businesses to consult with their legal counsel for the best and latest advice.
BD: With regard to the construction industry in particular — that’s a big part of our audience specifically at CoatingsPro Magazine — going back to your website that we referenced a few times, backtoworksafely.org, in which you put these industry-specific guidelines together that employers and employees can look at as they consider returning to the office, the jobsite, whatever it may be. With regard to construction, you’ve got a page specifically for that. What are some examples of things that they could conceivably change at a jobsite? What are some steps that they could be looking at implementing at a jobsite now in May 2020 that they probably wouldn’t have in early March 2020?
LS: Vendors and their subcontractors must continue to monitor the CDC, state, and local guidelines for any changes and recommendations, disinfection strategies, worker protections, and other best management practices. But within those guidance documents, we list a variety of recommendations, and I’ll just list a few of them here for your listeners.
- Obviously, first and foremost, do not let symptomatic workers on your jobsite.
- Folks want to make sure that they’re working very closely with their healthcare providers to design an appropriate control strategy to manage the situation.
- We suggest that jobsites reduce the number of individuals to those that are absolutely critically essential to completing the work.
- Temporary spaces, such as the job trailers, should be cleaned and disinfected at least once a day.
- We recommend redesigning the workspace. That would reduce or eliminate what we call trade stacking, where you have multiple trades, men and women, that are working in the same area at the same time.
- We recommend limiting meetings to 10 people or less.
- Staggering shifts and other trades to isolate and compartmentalize staff. This will help protect others if in fact an infection might occur.
- Having the same teams and individuals work together and travel together day after day if possible.
- Have project teams clean and disinfect their shard workstations and equipment after each use.
- Maintain a daily accrued visitor log. You want to log the date, time, and contact information for each and every visitor to the site.
- Try to stop employees from randomly walking floors, walking between floors or buildings to reduce cross-contamination.
- Consider color-coded stickers on hard hats, and restrict access to specific colors for each building or area.
- Maintain handwashing stations with soap and water in all common areas.
- Hand sanitizers should be placed in all vehicles and workstations.
- Finally, modifying break areas to allow for social distancing. You might want to consider picnic tables that are marked with Xs to stop people from sitting too close to each other. Maybe even removing chairs from break rooms to avoid seating.
BD: Besides the industry-specific guidance, which we’ve talked a lot about today, I know you guys are also working on a guide for smaller manufacturers. And it’s really the small businesses that have been hit so hard in this crisis. What considerations are there that are unique to small business people that may be listening? What are some of the factors that they should be considering in the coming weeks?
LS: In a way, I think with everything else going on, small businesses have more of a challenge than the large manufacturers, because their resources are limited. They don’t have the redundancy built in that some of the larger companies do. Our small manufacturing guide should be ready by the end of May, and we’ll distribute this to you so that you can pass it along to your membership.
But the biggest challenge for small manufacturers, in our opinion, is perhaps the physical workspace being constrained versus larger companies and having less backup staff. If one employee gets sick, repercussions might be felt by the rest of the team. Precautionary measures are that much more important. As with any size company, obviously, you want to develop ongoing communications to your employees regarding the facts of the coronavirus and COVID-19. The smaller manufacturers may not be familiar with OSHA requirements — again, [0:19:25 inaudible] associated with the N95 respirator — because they’ve never had to use the respirator. So if you’re mandating N95s in the workplace, you need to be mindful of those OSHA regulations. I can’t restate the importance of this enough. In line with CDC recommendations, you do want to provide all employees with some sort of face covering.
There are other measures I think that might be more feasible with smaller businesses. Again if possible, staggering shifts to isolate and compartmentalize staff. Considering is there a way to condense to a four-day workweek? Or could you allow for up to 72 hours of downtime at a facility for a proper disinfection and cleaning? Finally, with small businesses having space constraints, consider installing plastic partitions between the workstations, especially if you can’t physically spread out the employees due to the tight space. These are just a few recommendations that we suggest for smaller-size businesses. Keep in mind, the definition of a small business might be anything from a less-than-10-person shop to several hundred. So the recommendations need to be considered in terms of the overall scope and number of employees in the workspace.
BD: Larry, as we wrap up, how many of these changes do you expect to be implemented beyond the current crisis? Full disclosure, the current COVID-19 does not seem like — most timetables for a vaccine are, at a bare minimum — within the next year. The most optimistic estimates I’ve seen are 12 to 18 months. One of the more positive takeaways from your perspective, as CEO of an organization that’s looking out for worker safety, some of these changes are things that are probably difficult to implement when things are status quo.
But now that public health is on the forefront of everyone’s minds, these are things that, even if and when there is a vaccine or some successful treatment for COVID-19, are still potentially beneficial to employers, employees, and the overall worker environment. Moving forward, how many of these steps are potentially still of relevance and still useful to businesses, even a few years from now, after the current crisis (hopefully) passes?
LS: I think that, when you look ahead to beyond the arrival of a vaccine, many of these protocols that we’ve been talking about are going to continue for — maybe it is the new normal, as you’re hearing. Again, I think that this crisis, this pandemic, has really brought to the public’s mind and to the forefront of our society the fact that worker health and safety must be more prominently considered in the workplace.
Our hope is that, out of this horrific pandemic, there is a greater appreciation and respect for common-sense protocol that perhaps had been brushed to the side, to begin to take a greater center-stage presence with management. The more employers can do to safeguard the health and safety of their workers, the greater the benefit to the ultimate bottom line of their companies. Ultimately, when you look at the perception, if you will, on Wall Street — some of these companies are listed either on NASDAQ or some of the other exchanges around the world — one would hope that companies that are taking these extra precautions are going to be more favorably evaluated [0:23:16 inaudible] their investors, both large and small. We at AIHA are hopeful that the pandemic presents an opportunity for our profession to be more favorably viewed and for a lot of these recommendations to be permanently implemented by businesses both large and small.
BD: Larry, for our listeners that want more information or resources from you all, I’ve mentioned the website a few times, backtoworksafely.org. For people who want to hear more from your organization or access some of these resources, how can they get in touch or how can they access some of the materials that we’ve been discussing?
LS: All of our downstream phase-in documents, the guidance documents, will be stored on backtoworksafely.org. However, we also have another portal, which is on the aiha.org website. We do have a coronavirus microsite there, and that contains some other information. We are trying to migrate ancillary pieces from that site over to the backtoworksafely site, so that your members can go to one place and access information that might pertain to common-sense guidelines for reopening their businesses, but then also other guidance documents, like the plant hygiene document that I mentioned at the top of the house, that are going to be relevant beyond opening one’s business. I would suggest folks bookmark that page, and we’ll continue to update the documents over time.
BD: Larry, thank you so much for the time, and we’ll talk again soon.
LS: My pleasure. Thanks very much, Ben.
For more information, contact: AIHA, www.aiha.org