Over the last several weeks the media, professional organizations, federal agencies, legal firms, you name it, have been commenting on the spread of COVID-19, a disease caused by the novel coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), much is unknown about how the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads. However, in all workplaces where the exposure to COVID-19 may occur, prompt identification and isolation of potentially infectious individuals is a critical first step in protecting workers, visitors, and others at the worksite.
While there is still limited evidence of the widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States, as the cases are fairly limited per total capita of people, the thought is that most American workers are not at a significant risk of infection. As of March 4, 2020, the CDC is reporting that the immediate health risk from COVID -19 is considered low in the United States, however they also state that the virus is likely to spread. According to the United States Department of Labor – Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the potential risk may be elevated for some workers who interact in the following areas:
- Death Care
- Airline Operations
- Border Protection
- Solid Waste and Wastewater Management
- Those who travel overseas to areas, including parts of China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, and Japan (for those with chronic medical conditions)
While the risk may be considered higher for those individuals working in the above areas, workers in operations where there is no specific exposure should remain aware of the evolving outbreak situation. Employers should inform workers that management is aware of and closely monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak. They should encourage workers to report if they have recently traveled overseas or been exposed in a known infected area or to someone who was recently in a known infected area. Some of the symptoms of someone who has been exposed to COVID-19 include: acute respiratory symptoms, such as a fever, a cough, or difficulty breathing.
So, what should employers do to help prevent the virus from spreading throughout their workplaces? For all non-healthcare workers (healthcare employers may have more stringent guidelines), regardless of their specific risks, employers may want to implement and encourage their employees to follow these guidelines:
- Hand Washing – The CDC has emphasized that hand washing is one of the most important steps to avoiding the spread of germs. Washing hands with soap and water, vigorously rubbing together front and back for 20 seconds, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and rubbing hands until they are dry when soap and water is not available are the best preventions. Employees should be encouraged to wash their hands:
- After using the bathroom
- Before, during and after food preparation
- Before eating food
- After blowing their nose, coughing or sneezing
- After caring for someone who is ill or after changing a diaper
- After handling pets or other animals or their food and waste
- After touching garbage
- Avoid Touching the Face to Include Eyes, Nose and Mouth – Germs need an entry point, and the average person touches some part of their face every three to four minutes, so employees should be encouraged to avoid touching their face with unwashed hands.
- Cover Coughs or Sneezes – Employees should be encouraged to cover their coughs or sneezes with tissues and then discard the tissues in the trash, or cough or sneeze into the elbow area of their arm and then follow-up with handwashing.
- Frequently Clean Shared Surfaces, Equipment and Workstations – As germs travel quickly when multiple hands are touching shared surfaces, both employers and employees should use disinfectants to clean commonly touched items such as doorknobs, faucet handles, copy machines, fax machines, coffee pots, desktops, counters, handrails, keyboards, elevator buttons, etc.
- Allow Employees to Stay Home when they are Sick – When an employee is ill or feeling ill, allow them to stay home and get plenty of rest and check in with a health care provider as needed. Encourage the employee to utilize their paid time off or provide them with unpaid time off, as needed. Employers should follow the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or state-mandated laws when encouraging employees to use their paid time off or when providing unpaid time off.
- Video or Teleconferencing – Replace normal in-person meetings with video or teleconferencing, so as not to spread germs in close areas.
- Allow Employees to Work from Home – If an employee is feeling ill, or may have been exposed to a virus, allow them to work from home, if possible, in order to limit exposure to others. There may be cases where an employee working from home is not possible and the employee may need to use his or her available paid time off to cover the missed time or the employer may give the employee unpaid time off. Again, employers should follow the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or state-mandated laws when encouraging employees to use their paid time off or when providing unpaid time off.
- Limit Business Travel to Countries Where the Virus is Spreading – Check the CDC website daily for those areas where travel is restricted or not recommended due to the spread of COVID-19.
Employers are encouraged to keep soap dispensers full, hand sanitizers available to all workers in all common locations, and cleaning solutions available to cleaning personnel so that all areas are kept clean and disinfected daily. However, more importantly this may be the time for employers to remain flexible with employees who have either become ill, have a family member or relative who is ill, and or those who have been exposed to COVID-19. While the novel coronavirus has been known to cause death, it may be prevented if caught and isolated early. All employers are encouraged to proceed with caution yet refer to the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov) to gain more information as needed.
For additional information on the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace, please contact us at www.newfocushr.com.
Written by: Kristen Deutsch, M.B.A., CCP