In the midst of massive closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, “essential” industries—think healthcare workers, police officers, transportation workers, bankers, food workers, call center operators, etc.—must remain open (or, barring an order from a state’s governor, some nonessential industries, as well). So how do you keep yourself and your loved ones safe while still reporting for work every day?

Perhaps the most important step is understanding how the virus itself spreads. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 “spreads by droplets made when people with the coronavirus cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people nearby or be inhaled into their lungs. It may be possible that a person can get the coronavirus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” This is why the “social distancing” rules of staying at least six feet away from other people and not gathering in groups with more than ten people are so important.

The risk of exposure varies depending on your job and how much it involves coming into contact with others. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) categorizes all workers’ risks into the following categories: Very High (example: healthcare workers); High (example: medical transport workers); Medium (example: bankers); and Low (example: transportation workers). Regardless of your estimated risk, OSHA recommends all employers:

  • Offer flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts) to increase physical distance between employees.
  • Discourage employees from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment, when possible.
  • Provide alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Encourage employees to stay home if they are sick.
  • Maintain regular housekeeping practices, including routine cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, equipment, and other elements of the work environment.

If your employer does not offer this type of support, it is absolutely within your rights to ask for it. Most managers and higher ups are truly doing their best to keep people healthy if they need to physically report to work, but unfortunately not all do. It’s more important now than ever to take your health into your own hands.

In addition to the normal health practices you should be following even when there is not a pandemic, the Red Cross recommends the following steps for keeping yourself safe and well:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being in a public place or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home if you are sick, except to get medical care.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and throw the tissue away after use. If a tissue isn’t available, cough or sneeze into your elbow or sleeve, not your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, computers, phones, keyboards, sinks, toilets, faucets, and countertops.
  • If surfaces are dirty, clean them—use detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
  • Wear a face mask if you are sick. You should wear a face mask when you are around other people (e.g., sharing a room or vehicle) and before you enter a healthcare provider’s office.

Although the safest course of action is self-isolation at home, sometimes that simply isn’t possible. By following these safety and wellness guidelines, you can greatly reduce your chances of becoming infected with COVID-19 and spreading it to others. This is an unprecedented time in the workplace, but it’s important to remember there are actions we can take to mitigate the risks.