Safe return to work: A guide for employers

By Mark Learned, MD | Jul 12, 2020

For months, businesses across our state have experienced daily, if not hourly, changes to how they operate. And as restrictions across our state begin to lift, more changes are sure to come. But one thing is clear -- the physical, mental, and social well-being of the people who help our businesses run remains a top priority.

As a physician and leader in helping businesses plan for the health of their workforce, I'd like to offer some guidance to help local employers restart their workplaces in a way that best safeguards the health of their employees and the customers they serve.

These high-level tips also aim to prevent a resurgence of the virus while acknowledging that professional life and productivity will look different than it did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Physical distancing

While physical distancing can be challenging in a manufacturing setting, there are some general considerations that can help reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Consider staggering shifts or limiting the duration of work activities. Where possible, move or reposition workstations to create more space or install barriers between workstations. And take the time to ensure that employees are trained on how to properly put on, use/wear, remove, and maintain protective clothing and equipment and discourage them from sharing tools and equipment.

In an office setting, limit any meeting or gathering to 10 people or fewer. And for businesses that have adjusted their model to include more work-from-home days, embracing technology now will help you in the coming months and beyond. I hear from some of my patients that they miss the face-to-face meetings so encouraging the use of video during virtual meetings is critical. I can tell you from my own experience, having the cameras on makes a virtual meeting feel much more like an in-person meeting.


For businesses that are reopening and allowing more employees in physical spaces, provide hand sanitizers in multiple locations throughout your location. Increase any ventilation or air circulation and provide disinfectants and disposable towels employees can use to clean work surfaces. Promote frequent handwashing and institute a universal masking policy wherever possible. If employees do not have access to soap and water for handwashing, provide alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60 percent alcohol. It may be a good idea to confer with your partner unions or OSHA to ensure your health and safety practices align with the recommendations for your specific industry.


While the world has been hyper-focused on breaking the curve of the increase of new cases, the next step we should all be thinking about and acting on is suppressing the disease's spread. For the workplace, this means now is the time to reevaluate leave-of-absence policies to allow workers to stay safe while maintaining their job security. For businesses that are able, consult your health care provider on how to implement contact tracing to alert employees if another employee has become infected.

Mental health imperative

While physical health is important, much has changed in our daily routines that can lead to an increase in mental health needs. We've now added the stressors of daily home life on top of our daily work life. Encourage your employees to use the employee assistance programs you have in place, check in with weekly one-on-ones and set aside ten minutes to talk about how things are at home. Importantly, take time to engage your staff, asking them about their ideas about how to keep a psychologically healthy workplace both in person and virtually.

Return-to-work playbook

These are just a few examples of how businesses can get back up and running while ensuring the health and safety of staff and customers. Kaiser Permanente recently published a publicly available return-to-work playbook that includes information and guidance from trusted sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and county health departments, along with manufacturing-specific guidelines from the National Association of Manufacturing and OSHA. Kaiser Permanente will update its playbook regularly as official guidance continues to evolve.

Mark Learned, MD, is Kaiser Permanente's vice president of primary and urgent care.