While employers are used to dealing with flu season every year, the new coronavirus threat has caused many employers to rethink how they deal with illnesses and whether they have appropriate plans in place for emerging health threats.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause various illnesses and include for example:
- The common cold;
- Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS); and
- Middle East Respiratory syndrome (MERS).
However, the 2019 novel coronavirus (or COVID-19) has caused such a stir since it is a new strain that had not been previously identified in humans. Now that there are confirmed cases of the virus in the US, employers should be thinking about the coronavirus and its potential impact on the workplace and consider the following tips to protect their employees and workplaces.
1. Follow CDC and OSHA Coronavirus Guidelines
Employers should familiarize themselves with guidance from government agencies, including:
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); and
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
According to OSHA, “Most American workers are not at significant risk of infection,” but there are workers that may have an elevated exposure risk because of their interaction with potentially affected travelers from abroad. Types of workers with an elevated risk may include those working in:
- Health care;
- Air travel;
- Border protection;
- Laboratories; and
- Waste management.
Additionally, workers who travel to certain areas where the virus is spreading have an elevated risk.
The CDC has released interim guidance to help prevent workplace exposures to acute respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, in non-healthcare settings. However, the CDC cautions that to prevent stigma and workplace discrimination, employers should only use their guidance to determine the risk of COVID-19 infection.
CDC guidance emphasizes that an employer should not make a determination of risk based on an employee’s race or country of origin and needs to maintain confidentiality of people that have been confirmed to have the infection.
The CDC currently recommends that employers:
- Actively encourage sick employees to stay home;
- Separate sick employees from the rest of the workforce and send them home immediately;
- Emphasize respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees;
- Perform routine environmental cleaning; and
- Advise traveling employees to take precautions.
The CDC guidance also provides employers with:
- Planning considerations for more widespread community outbreaks;
- Important things to consider when creating an infectious disease outbreak response plan; and
- Recommendations for such plans.
2. Be Aware of Legal Responsibilities Related to Coronavirus
Although there are currently no laws or regulations that specifically address an employer’s legal obligations related to the coronavirus, it’s important to be aware of the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. While this clause applies to many different situations, in the case of the coronavirus, it essentially requires employers to ensure that their employees have safe and healthy workplaces.
However, the General Duty Clause is not the only safety and health consideration employers need to take into account. They also must remember that OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standard requires them to provide employees with certain equipment (e.g., gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory devices) when particular hazards may cause injury or impairment.
Also, since OSHA has deemed the coronavirus to be a recordable illness when a worker is infected on the job, an employer must record any such cases on the OSHA 300 log.
3. Educate Employees on Coronavirus
It’s important to educate employees about the transmission and symptoms of the coronavirus to help calm fears and reduce the spread of misinformation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the coronavirus can be transmitted person-to-person, specifically through respiratory secretions such as coughing and sneezing.
Common signs of the virus are:
- Respiratory symptoms;
- Shortness of breath; and
- Breathing difficulties.
Severe cases may cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure or death.