The COVID-19 pandemic has the world rethinking how we all do things. Scientists now realize the virus may be twice as contagious as they believed. The two to three people thought to be infected by a carrier may now be closer to six. While most countries have ordered people to shelter in place, essential businesses, including warehouses and distribution centers, must continue to operate.

Yet the rapid spread of the coronavirus poses some challenges for warehouse operators. Extra measures need to be taken to safeguard workers and prevent the spread of the virus. Here are some ways distribution companies can keep their warehouse workers safe short-term and for the long haul.

Short-term strategies

The following steps can be taken now to keep the spread of the virus at bay and help your company weather the storm. What's most important right now is to safeguard the safety of employees.

Develop Procedures and Train for the New Normal

Companies should develop a safety operations plan based on the current health guidelines, update the employee handbook with the new policies, and distribute the new guidelines immediately to all staff.

Changing the workplace culture is perhaps the most significant challenge a company faces when curbing the spread of the virus. Management will still need to supervise workers to remind them of the new policies. Many of the current safety recommendations, such as wearing masks, sanitizing high-contact areas frequently, keeping a distance, and avoiding touching one’s face aren’t natural to most people. 

Perhaps the most difficult requirement of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) current guidelines on how people can slow the spread of the virus is maintaining a large safety perimeter. The CDC advises that groups should not gather and individuals should keep a distance of at least six feet away from each other.

This can be difficult for workers in a large, busy warehouse or distribution center. Poor acoustics from the high ceilings and the constant noise from trucks and forklifts make it difficult for employees to communicate effectively. Add the fact that workers are wearing face masks, and it may be impossible to hear or understand each other.

These conditions are likely to lead employees to unconsciously get too close to each other in an attempt to communicate. In such a case, the use of two-way radios or walkie talkies to speak from a safe distance could be a good solution. As long as the devices are regularly sanitized — all high-touch surfaces should be sanitized every two hours.

Expand the Workplace Safety Database

The virus is highly contagious and can spread quickly, potentially bringing a distribution or warehouse operations center to a halt if a large number of employees are home sick and isolated because of the illness. HR or management should record any events where employees breached company policy, raising the risk of exposure to the virus. All employees should be aware of the coronavirus symptoms and report them to management.

Warehouses are already highly skilled at collecting and working with data. And most companies compile workplace safety information to track and analyze work-related accidents. A company should expand on its practices immediately by implementing the collection of COVID-19 exposure risks and employee sick leaves.

The New York Times reports on how China tracks citizens through their smartphones to monitor high-risk individuals who could inadvertently spread the virus. People’s temperatures are checked before entering many locations. Health status is evaluated based on risk factors and people are color-coded in green, yellow, or red through their mobile app to determine if they can enter the subway or go home to self-quarantine.

Although the measures may seem extreme, China claims the use of big data and geotracking are crucial to isolate potential carriers before they spread the virus. Whether it’s an entire nation or a single distribution center, big data plays a vital role in monitoring people and their risk level to slow or stop the spread of the virus.

The long-term strategy

Once the basic safety needs are met, other changes can be made. Some of the changes needed now can have lasting effects on the company’s culture. For example, effective communication and teamwork are needed in times of crisis but are also an essential long-term strategy for any company desiring to succeed. The current workplace challenges provide an opportunity to foster the concept of transparency and collaboration.

Although there is a lot of uncertainty around the virus, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. Many essential workers feel as if they’re risking their lives to do their job and need reassurance that management is doing what they can to keep them safe.

Wired Magazine interviewed Amazon warehouse workers to learn how the largest distributor on earth is handling the coronavirus pandemic. The workers’ chief complaint is how little Amazon has informed them about. Employees working in the Michigan warehouse location where a worker tested positive for COVID-19 said they heard about it from the local news.

Warehouse executives and management can learn from Amazon’s mistakes. Employees are already tense about the situation. Keeping employees updated about what’s going on in the company, even if the communications are simple emails or bulletins placed in public places to explain there is no new information to share, can be helpful to keep workers at ease.

Plus, disseminating accurate information about the company’s situation, straight from the horse’s mouth, minimizes misinformation and rumors, which can lead to more worry during a time when everyone is already concerned as it is. Companies that can provide a sense of transparency by showing employees they’re willing to take all the action necessary to safeguard their health or job security will foster trust and loyalty from the team.

Once management creates a model on how to communicate in times of crisis and builds trust with employees, they can use the template in the future to navigate through the firm’s developmental phases and growth. Just because the coronavirus outbreak is stopped doesn’t mean the open lines of communication between executives, management, and the support team have to be.

Take the opportunity to meet the short-term dangers the coronavirus poses to business to adapt and evolve into a stronger company able to meet unforeseen changes — with a loyal team of employees ready to support the company.