How Essential Workers Can Protect Themselves From COVID-19

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To reduce the spread of COVID-19, everyone who does not have an essential job must stay home. But those who do have essential jobs (healthcare workers, grocery-store employees and delivery carriers, for example) must be extra careful to protect themselves while working.    

“There are some precautions every essential worker should take, regardless of their job,” says Earlexia Norwood, M.D., a family medicine physician with Henry Ford Health System. “Wash your hands frequently, clean communal surfaces often, wear a mask and gloves. Don’t touch your face or mask. Don’t use your cell phone at work, or if you must, clean it often with antibacterial wipes. Avoid sharing personal items like pens. And after coming home from work each day, take off your clothes and mask and wash them in the laundry immediately.”

Break rooms and communal bathrooms are hot spots that should be used with caution, too, says Dr. Norwood. Use paper towels or tissues to open doors and turn off sink faucets, and wash your hands well. “If there’s a break room that offers a cross breeze, open the windows to let in fresh air so the air can circulate,” she suggests. “And employers should limit the number of people who can be in the break room at one time in order to maintain a six-foot distance between people.”  

Along with these measures, there are specific precautions essential workers can take. Here, Dr. Norwood shares how different workers can protect themselves:    

Cashiers 

  • Clean frequently touched surfaces. "All of the equipment you use frequently count as communal surfaces to keep clean, so in this case, that would be things like cash registers and countertops," says Dr. Norwood. "Clean the register at the beginning of your shift, and clean it frequently throughout your shift using antibacterial wipes." 
  • Wear gloves and a mask, but don't let them give you a false sense of security. "Your gloves cover your hands, and if you do the same thing with the glove-covered hand as you do with your bare hand--touch your mouth, eyes, or nose--you still have the capability to spread the infection," says Dr. Norwood. "If you can, try changing your gloves with every several customers, and when you leave work, throw the gloves away in a trash bin." 

Stock clerks 

  • Cardboard boxes may harbor COVID-19 for 24 hours, and plastic for two to three days. If your job is to load and unload boxes, wipe them down before bringing them into the facility. "You can put unclean boxes in one area, and then wipe them down with soap and water or wipes and put the clean boxes in another area. Then, clean the area where the unclean boxes were," says Dr. Norwood. 
  • When stocking shelves, block off the particular aisle you're working in so customers can't pass byit will reduce the risk of contamination from close contact with other people. Try to maintain at least six feet of distance from others. 

Postal workers and delivery carriers 

  • Like stock clerks, wiping down packages is a great practice, says Dr. Norwood. 
  • Wear gloves and a mask, don't touch your face and mask, and wash your hands often. 
  • Wipe down communal surfaces including the steering wheels of delivery trucks.
  • Maintain six feet of distance between you and the consumer (or whoever you're delivering the package to). 
  • If you can, leave packages on doorsteps without touching high-surface contact areas like doorbells and knobs. 

Restaurant workers

Dining in restaurants right now isn't allowed, so many restaurants are offering takeout services.

  • Those in the food industry who are fulfilling takeout orders should try to avoid or limit the exchange of money. "I like the idea of having people pre-order their food and pay with cards online or over the phone," says Dr. Norwood. "It's a safer way to operate than exchanging money or credit cards with guests." 
  • Instead of having customers walk up to the door or go inside the restaurant to get their food, have them stay in their cars and bring food out to them if possible. 
  • As always, wear a mask and gloves and wash your hands frequently. 

Healthcare workers 

Whether you work in housekeeping or food service or as a medical assistant, an admissions clerk, doctor or nurse (or any other clinical job), everyone in healthcare should take great precaution, says Dr. Norwood. 

  • Leave anything you don't need at home to reduce risk of contamination. 
  • Wear gloves and masks, don't touch your face, and wash your hands often.
  • Wipe down your badges, phones, car steering wheels and doorknobs. 
  • After your shift, take off your work clothes, wash them immediately, and take a shower. 
  • Leave your work shoes in a specific area, like a covered porch or in the garage. 

If you're unsure about company policies or have questions about your particular job's risks, talk to your employer. And lastly, thank you to all essential workerswe could not pull through this pandemic without you.


If you're experiencing symptoms and are concerned about possibly having COVID-19, use this online screening tool to help you learn more about your risk and get recommended next steps. For up-to-date information about Henry Ford Health System's response to the coronavirus, visit henryford.com/coronavirus.

For more health and wellness advice from Henry Ford experts, subscribe to get a weekly email of our latest articles. 

Dr. Earlexia Norwood is a family medicine physician seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center - Troy and is the service chief for family medicine at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. 

Categories: FeelWell