What is the plan when your company has its first COVID-19 case? Most of our current conversations have revolved around refining best practices for social distancing and segregating our workforce. We must continue to hone and stress these prevention strategies, but as business leaders, I suggest shifting some of your planning effort to talking about mitigation strategies. What are you going to do at 10 p.m. when the call comes in that one of your staff or crew members just tested positive?
My Coast Guard days taught me well to use the calm before the storm. Before Hurricane Ike hit, I can remember huddling up with Marcus Woodring, Joe Leonard, Jim Elliott, and Frank Hawthorne to outline our plan if the worst-case-scenario happened and to talk through the details in the simplest of terms.
This week, I’ve talked to several individuals I respect on crisis management to find out what they believe the strategy should be for responding to a COVID-19 case. My goal is not to offer a best practice, but rather to help you jumpstart the conversation within your own company. Here is what I’ve learned:
1.You need a plan for informing and working with government officials.
2.You need a plan for investigating the exposure potential.
3.You need to be clear on your options for sanitizing your facility.
4.You need to discuss how you are going to get back to work.
As a leader, you need to be focused on overseeing the plan in action, and you must recognize that you will need to delegate important roles to ensure you don’t become ineffective and overwhelmed. The first role to delegate – and now – is your liaison with CDC, Harris County Health, CBP, and the Coast Guard.
The investigation is where you will realize that the government is not going to solve your problem. You are on your own to interpret how best to implement CDC guidance. Unlike an oil spill incident, there won’t be a federal investigator that comes to your site and tells you whether you are doing enough.
Time is critical here. You will have to act quickly and decisively. Delegate, and tell that person to document every action the company takes. They will need to talk to the individual who tested positive, and put together who s/he had contact with, where s/he went, and, with some written guidance, make some tough decisions. What equipment and spaces do you need to immediately isolate? Who had close exposure and needs to quarantine for 14 days? How do you warn people with possible moderate exposure?
Do you clean, disinfect, decontaminate or just do containment? They all mean different things and can be easily miscommunicated. Keep in mind that resources are scarce. Your company employees (if they have proper training) or cleaning vendor may not have the resources to decontaminate the entire facility. Plus, you will need to set aside some cleaning equipment in reserve, in case there is another COVID-19 case at your facility in the near future.
Alternatively, is it possible to remove equipment from service and restrict areas until further notice? If so, for how long? Again, delegate and tell that person to document the chemicals and methodology used, including how each piece of equipment and area was treated. Provide that documentation to all the government agencies to demonstrate your company has taken the appropriate actions.
The fourth point is a challenge most don’t adequately address. If our employees are our number one priority, why would we ask them to go back to work in such a situation? You must be clear with them that you are not being reckless, and their service is critical. In this case, as a critical infrastructure provider, our nation needs your company and employees to keep working. Be upfront with them, explaining in great detail the decisive and reasonable actions you have taken in the contaminated areas, or how work will only continue in the non-contaminated areas until the problem area or equipment is put back into service.
Like you, we preached safety every day in the Coast Guard. Specifically, safety is everyone’s responsibility, both for themselves and those around them. The same goes for social isolation. Give those in harm’s way the responsibility to make decisions that could impact their health and safety as well as the health and safety of those around them. Evaluate whether your company is empowering employees to make good decisions. If the corporate culture, such as lack of paid time-off for COVID-19 isolation, etc., impedes employees from making quality decisions, think of the possible jeopardy to your company.
These are tough times. COVID-19 is a different storm than any of us have previously experienced – but find your calm place in it to huddle up. Be committed to continuous plan review. Ensure your team is up-to-speed on the responsibilities delegated to them and keep talking the plan out with everyone in the simplest terms. I am reminded of the old quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” Let’s not fail to plan as we continue to face-off with COVID-19.