A Guide to COVID-19 Workplace Safety
The COVID-19 pandemic has created several challenges, including increased maintenance of health and safety in the workplace. Economic conditions in the wake of the pandemic have created a sense of urgency for many businesses hoping to return to office spaces. However, COVID-19 is highly transmissible, and there are unique challenges in providing safe settings for workers. Businesses that have been reluctant to open or that are facing closure during the pandemic may utilize CDC and OSHA recommendations to ensure the safety of their employees to the best of their ability. It will take the combined efforts of managers, public health professionals, and employees to uphold the necessary changes to practices and operations to create the safest possible work environments and minimize the spread of the Coronavirus in the workplace.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Businesses
The impact of Coronavirus on business and the economy includes both small and large scale changes that will have dramatic effects for years to come. The economic toll included a record 3.28 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits and disruption to the global supply chain. 99% of businesses in the U.S. are considered small businesses, and they employ nearly half the U.S. workforce. The impact of COVID-19 on small businesses showcased the financial fragility of many small businesses where mass layoffs and closures occurred. A survey of 5,800 small businesses showed that at least 43% of those polled closed at least temporarily, and reduced active employment by at least 39%. Impacts also varied across industries including retail, arts and entertainment, personal and food services, and hospitality industries noting declines in employment exceeding 50%, while finance, professional services, and real estate industries experienced less disruption by adapting to remote work and production. 70% of respondents from the survey anticipated utilizing the Paycheck Protection Program section of the CARES Act, though many businesses were reluctant to apply due to concerns of administration complexity, issues with eligibility, and anticipated issues of accessing aid. Implications for business due to COVID-19 show that business decision-makers must face the effects of high-consequence and low-likelihood risks as they continue navigating the new normal or new paradigm. Many businesses are reinventing themselves to function in the new working-from-home economy while others look to control and prevention methods to resume business operations amidst a pandemic.
What Should Businesses do During the Coronavirus Disease Pandemic?
Businesses that cannot adapt to remote-work can look to OSHA control and prevention guidelines that provide general guidance for all workers and employees. While prevention methods will be discussed in detail later in the article, precautionary measures that should be upheld by businesses and employees may include:
- Frequent washing of the hands for a minimum of 20 seconds.
- Avoiding touching the face, eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Practicing social distancing and avoiding close contact with those who are sick.
- Employees that display symptoms of illness should stay home to avoid further transmission.
- Practicing respiratory etiquette by properly covering coughs and sneezes.
- Understanding and recognizing personal risk factors and those that have underlying conditions or may be at higher risk for developing severe complications from COVID-19.
- Maintaining environmental cleaning and decontamination of the workplace.
Worker Exposure Risk to COVID-19
The National Conference of State Legislators notes that essential workers are defined by their respective states. While there are some federal guidelines, states and local governments largely define and create their own guidance. In general, industries and workers that are considered essential include:
- Workers in the energy and utility industries.
- Child care providers.
- Water, wastewater, and sanitation industry workers.
- Agricultural and food production workers.
- Critical retail workers for specific industries such as grocery stores, hardware stores, or mechanics.
- Critical trade workers including construction, electricians, and plumbers.
- Workers in the transportation industry or emergency infrastructure operations such as fire and police protection.
- Healthcare professionals and healthcare service workers.
- Nonprofit and social service organization workers.
- Financial organization workers and tax collection services.
- Communication infrastructure maintenance workers for telephones, radio, and the internet.
Occupational Risk Levels for Covid-19
The worker exposure risk to COVID-19 as defined by OSHA includes four categories:
- Very high exposure risk. Jobs and workers included in the very high exposure risk category include healthcare and morgue workers who directly handle infectious patients or bodies of people who may have died from COVID-19.
- High exposure risk. Jobs and workers in the high exposure risk category may include healthcare support, healthcare delivery, medical transport, and mortuary workers who may be exposed to suspected COVID-19 patients and bodies.
- Medium exposure risk. Jobs and workers in the medium exposure risk category may include those in contact with the general public. This may include schools and high-population-density work environments, such as some high-volume retail or food and drink service work settings. Others that may be included in medium exposure risk are those that travel or return from locations with widespread COVID-19 transmissions.
- Lower exposure risk. Jobs and workers in the lower exposure risk or cautionary risk include those that require little to no contact with the public or coworkers.
Tips for Reducing COVID-19 Transmission in the Workplace
The CDC offers interim guidance for businesses and employers in regards to Coronavirus planning, preparation, and response to lower and minimize virus transmission in the workplace. The following sections elaborate on these CDC measures of guidance. Businesses may also consider preparing the workplace for Covid-19 with additional compliance training courses and guidance from OSHA and the CDC. Businesses may also consider utilizing the Resuming Business Toolkit, offered by the CDC to ensure that they have met all safety regulations and requirements.
Cleaning and Sanitation
The CDC provides information for cleaning and disinfecting your facility as well as detailed COVID-19 employer information for office buildings. Cleaning and disinfecting tips include:
- Wearing disposable gloves.
- Cleaning surfaces with soap and water before disinfecting them.
- Utilizing disinfectants from the EPA List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus.
- Strictly adhering to all instructions on disinfectant labels.
- Targeting high-touch surfaces for disinfection.
- Creating a cleaning routine for the whole building and miscellaneous surfaces such as soft surfaces, electronics, laundry.
- Regularly washing hands and changing gloves during the cleaning process.
Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace that is free from hazards that may cause death or serious physical harm. Employers should practice hazard identification and assessment of risk for Covid-19 transmission. Employers should identify working and common and shared areas that are higher-risk areas for transmission. This may include:
- Meeting rooms.
- Break rooms.
- Locker rooms or bathrooms.
- Check-in areas and front desk spaces.
- Waiting areas.
- Eating areas.
- Parking lots.
- Common routes of entry and exit.
Employers may also need to re-arrange working areas to ensure that close contact of under six feet can be minimized or eliminated. This may include:
- Modifying seating, furniture, and workstations to maintain a social distance of 6 feet.
- Utilizing transparent shields or physical barriers to separate employees or consumers when social distancing of six feet is not applicable.
- Utilizing visual clues such as tape or signs to showcase appropriate distances in waiting or common areas.
- Replacing high-touch communal items such as pens, snacks, or water fountains with alternatives such as single-serving items, or encouraging employees to bring their own personal items such as pens and personal reusable water bottles.
All employees should be updated and notified of any changes to the work process or updated COVID-19 social distance requirements. This may include but is not limited to:
- Employees and staff.
- Cleaning and janitorial staff.
- Maintenance staff.
- Utility employees.
- Relief employees.
In-Person or Virtual Health Checks
The ADA restricts medical examinations unless they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided guidance on COVID-19 for pandemic preparedness that discusses how much information an employer may request from a potentially sick employee or immuno-compromised employee. Though, in general, measuring the body temperature is considered a medical examination, employers in communities with widespread COVID-19 cases may measure employees' body temperatures to determine if they have a fever. Employers should be aware that a high fever does not explicitly indicate COVID-19, and that for some COVID-19 cases, a fever may not be present. Employers should also be aware that temperature readings and virtual health checks are confidential.
For occupational safety, OSHA generally recommends that employees wear face coverings at work to help control and reduce transmission. Employers have the discretion to decide if wearing a mask helps to prevent, or exacerbate a hazard throughout a work shift. The work environment may also necessitate what type of facial covering is acceptable, such as a cloth mask or PPE such as an N95 filtering facepiece respirator. Some employers may also need to consider accessible communication, and provide masks with clear windows to facilitate lip reading when necessary. The CDC offers a guide on masks and instructs on how masks slow the spread of COVID-19.
Working From Home
The interim guidance for businesses and employers responding to the Coronavirus recommends that businesses should instruct any employee that has become infected or may have had a risk of exposure to stay home for 14 days and telework if possible. Businesses are encouraged to support and implement telework when possible and if available. This may also include offering more flexible work options and times for employees that are sick, recovering, or caring for a family member who has coronavirus.
Sick Building Syndrome
Sick building syndrome is a condition associated with complaints of discomfort within the building that quickly resolves after the worker or occupant has left the building. Symptoms may include:
- Eye, nose, and/or throat irritation.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Sensitivity to odors.
- Muscle pain.
Though the specific causes of the symptoms are unknown, they are generally attributed to the effects, conditions, materials, or decor of the building causing susceptibility to low concentrations of contaminants and low air quality. The guidance on preparing workplaces for COVID-19 includes checking for air quality, installing high-efficiency air filters, and increasing ventilation rates within the work environment. Enhanced air cleaning from infectious aerosols and updating HVAC systems to maintain airflow is also essential. This may include having staff work in designated "clean ventilation zones and limiting work in ventilation zones that are in higher risk areas of the building. If a business is preparing to reopen after closure, it is vital to evaluate the building and its mechanical and life-safety systems before occupancy. This may include proactively engaging in cleaning and sanitation for mold growth, issues with stagnant water systems, or rodents and other pests.
OSHA Compliance Guidelines and Recommendations for the Coronavirus
The United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers guidance, regulations, standards, and directives that apply to worker exposure of the Coronavirus.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards are typically regulated by industry and include the use of gloves, face and eye protection, and respiratory protection for workplace and job environment hazards. OSHA standards (Respiratory Protection standard 29 CFR 1910.134) require that employers must implement comprehensive respiratory protection programs. The General Duty Clause (Section 5(a)(1)) requires that the employer "shall furnish to each of their employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to their employees. This means that all safety measures shall be taken to ensure the safest workplace possible, and that the appropriate PPE should be used in all necessary situations. Section 5(b) notes that each employee shall comply with the occupational safety and health standards issued that apply to their own actions of conduct, meaning that if the employer designates the necessity of PPE, the employee must comply to the best of their ability.
OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Standard
OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Standard (29CFR 1910.1030) typically applies to occupational exposure to potentially infectious materials that have been contaminated by human blood. Though the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard does not typically apply to respiratory secretions that could transmit SARS-CoV-2, the standard does offer a framework that can be leveraged for safety standards of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though each state has OSHA-approved workplace safety plans, companies and businesses can outsource training to meet measures of compliance. This may include bloodborne pathogen courses that provide CDC and OSHA standards and methods of handling potentially infectious materials.
Addressing Employees Who Have Been Exposed or Showing Symptoms
Businesses must strive to prevent and reduce transmission among employees. The OSHA Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 outlines policies and procedures on how to address employees who have experienced exposure or may be showing symptoms.
Identify and Isolate Suspected Cases
Employers need to develop policies and procedures that are communicated with staff for providing a mask and immediately isolating an employee that displays signs or symptoms of COVID-19. Employers should train employees on the proper procedures and designate a specific area with closable doors that may serve as isolation rooms until the potentially sick person can leave the worksite. If possible, potentially sick employees should also be isolated from one another to reduce the chances of transmission if one of the sick employees tests positive for COVID-19. Employers should also create a procedure for the safe transportation of an employee who becomes sick at work either to their home or to a medical facility.
Report and Communicate Employee Exposure
If an employee does test positive for COVID-19 or experiences a risk exposure that may have impacts on their coworkers, employers must inform employees of the possible exposure of COVID-19 in the workplace but must maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The employee who has been potentially exposed should be instructed to stay home for 14 days and work remotely if possible, while self-monitoring their symptoms.
Respect the Employee's Privacy
Businesses that have an employee with a confirmed case of COVID-19 should inform other employees of the possible potential exposure to COVID-19. However, businesses need to respect employee medical privacy and adhere to any laws that directly impact HIPAA and medical privacy, including the ADA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and The Department of Labor. Employers should understand the 5 main HIPAA rules, and may consider taking appropriate courses such as HIPAA for Business Associates Training, or HIPAA COVID-19 Compliance Training for healthcare settings.
COVID-19 Employee Education
To further limit potential workplace exposures, employers should provide employees with training and education about the virus, transmission, and how to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Employers should provide training to employees that includes:
- The employer's policies and procedures in regards to:
- Sick leave, sick leave for a family member or dependent, insurance, pay, and remote work options.
- How to handle potential exposure in the workplace.
- COVID-19 infection control in healthcare settings.
- HIPAA training and employee rights.
- General hygiene and handwashing practices.
- How to recognize COVID-19 symptoms and what to do if you are sick.
- Cleaning and disinfecting practices.
- The importance and effectiveness of PPE, face coverings, and social distancing.
- Safe work practices.
- Stress management.
To facilitate and support employee training and guidance, employers should make a communication plan. This may include multiple materials to support workplace communication and may include:
- Reminding employees of established communication mechanisms.
- Providing employees with a communication channel for employees to provide feedback to supervisors, management, and HR.
- Establishing a designated COVID-19 communication channel. Such as a COVID-19 specific telephone hotline or email address, or company text messaging program
- Creating and sending out regular updates through letters to staff.
- Utilize small group meetings that uphold social distancing and face coverings where employees can present and learn information.
- Post communication materials such as posters or signs that are easily readable and in common areas.
Resources for COVID-19 Workplace Safety
Primary and credible resources for information on workplace safety include OSHA, the CDC, and the U.S. Department of Labor. These resources often offer the most up-to-date information, as well as supplementary information for the creation of COVID-19 specific practices and procedures.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration from the U.S. The Department of Labor offers up-to-date information and coronavirus resources and informational materials for businesses. Including: