Serving essential workers: Four tips to guard their health and safety

Essential workers have played an integral part in keeping the world moving, and the protocols and  precautions to keep them safe will need to continue in the months ahead.

By | 3 minute read | December 10, 2020

Business woman in mask at desk

Even as good news emerges about COVID-19 vaccines, governments and scientists are still urging people to follow guidelines for reducing infections. For the roughly 55 million essential workers in the United States who may not have the option of working remotely, the protocols and  precautions to keep them safe will need to continue – and evolve as circumstances change.

Here are four essential worker safety tips that employers can act on right away:

 1. Be proactive about safety issue 

The evidence is clear now. Masks work, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) have updated their guidelines to say that a mask protects the person wearing it as well as the people around them. Businesses need to go beyond encouraging mask wearing and take steps to ensure masks are available and being used by everyone who comes through their doors. The logistical challenge of ensuring that the right personal protective equipment (PPE) is in the right places needs constant, proactive attention, as do other safety matters, like installing barriers or hand sanitizing stations. The evolution in mask guidelines shows that businesses will need a consistent flow of data – from both internal and external sources – to  react quickly as new safety recommendations are released. Tracking and swiftly adapting to changing circumstances, including local, state and federal requirements, will not only help keep employees safe but will give customers and communities additional protection as well, (Learn more about healthier re-entry practices)

2. Rethink workspaces

A healthy space is key to a safer workplace. That’s why businesses need to zero in on occupancy data. Once an organization knows who is using space and when, they can reconfigure workspaces to create the proper distancing, then adjust as circumstances change. There may also be an opportunity to experiment with hybrid working models if an essential worker can work from home. For example, employees could come two days a week, and work from the other three.

There are other practical concerns with workspaces, too, that businesses can address. Both the CDC and WHO have found that ventilation is a vital tool for reducing airborne transmission of the virus. Even if it’s not feasible for a business to overhaul or update their ventilation system, simple changes like increasing theoutdoor air intake or opening windows or using more outdoor space for work, can help reduce risk for essential workers. Since person-to-person transmission is still the biggest source of infections, consider giving workers self-service tools that let them handle typical workplace tasks without personal contact, like reserving a workspace, requesting maintenance or ordering food. Robust cleaning protocols and easy-to-access sanitizing products can also promote hygiene and help maintain a healthy workspace. (Discover how to create safer workspaces)

3. Be flexible whenever possible

For many essential workers, working from home isn’t an option. But that doesn’t mean businesses can’t find other ways to provide flexibility. Researchers have found that giving people a sense of control over their schedules can reduce burnout and stress. Businesses should strive to offer options and choices to essential workers whenever they can, whether that means giving them a chance to pick their shifts or letting them work alternative hours. At the end of November, 11 states and two territories still had partial or full school shutdowns in place, and many other states require school shutdowns if COVID-19 cases reach a certain threshold. So businesses should recognize that childcare remains a challenge for many essential workers and provide schedule flexibility as much as they can. As the pandemic stretches on, flexibility should extend to employee well-being, too. Essential workers are becoming more susceptible to burnout and other mental health challenges. Businesses can help their employees by encouraging them to rest, perform self-care and maintain social connections. (View the infographic on building a more agile workplace)

4. Prepare for infections, then use technology to slow the spread

Since essential workers have a higher exposure risk, businesses should be prepared to support employees who test positive, then quickly perform contact tracing to reduce the spread. Research has shown that COVID-19 spreads so fast, it can quickly overwhelm manual contact tracing efforts. Especially for larger businesses, digitally assisted contact tracing is vital. Choosing one that integrates space and sensor data will help identify potential exposures and provide a way to monitor people who were affected. Having this data on hand also gives businesses an opportunity to encourage self-quarantining to help mitigate spread, and deliver the right services that an infected employee needs. (Read “The case for human-centered contact tracing”)


Essential workers have played an integral part in keeping the world moving. That’s why employee health and safety is a business imperative. These essential worker safety tips are four ways to give them the safest possible place to work.