Coronavirus is not for everyone: What should employers do?

From the Husch Blackwell Safety Matters Blog

Donna Pryor photo
Donna Pryor
Avi Meyerstein photo
Avi Meyerstein

By Avi Meyerstein & Donna Pryor, Husch Blackwell

As cable news hysteria continues to spread far faster than the novel coronavirus itself, government agencies are issuing alerts, and many employers are wondering what – if anything – they should be doing to protect their workers. What should your company do?

First, here’s the relatively good news. To quote OSHA, “There is no evidence of widespread transmission of 2019-nCoV in the United States at this time. Without sustained human-to-human transmission, most American workers are not at significant risk of infection.”

Indeed, while tens of thousands are impacted in China, according to the CDC, only 12 people have been confirmed to have the virus in the United States. By contrast, last year over 34,000 people died of the flu in the U.S.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore coronavirus. Every employer should spend some time assessing the risk to their workforce and confirming whether or not they have reason for concern about employee exposures. Those with elevated risks should take further action. Here are some key questions and answers to guide your next steps.

Which U.S. employers and workplaces have elevated risks for coronavirus?

OSHA explains, “Exposure risk may be elevated for some workers who interact with potentially infected travelers from abroad.” Those obviously at elevated risk, according to OSHA, are workers involved in:

  • Healthcare (and deathcare)
  • Laboratories
  • Airline operations
  • Border protection
  • Solid waste and wastewater management
  • Travel to areas, including parts of China, where the virus is spreading
  • Exposure to those suspected of infection

So, if you’re in an affected industry or have workers engaged in these functions or activities, you’ll want to dig deeper into the information below.

What is coronavirus and how does it spread?

Much is still unknown about the  2019-nCoV (coronavirus) first identified in Wuhan, China, and its transmission. Coronaviruses generally are most often spread from person to person among close contacts (within six feet). Experts believe transmission is usually airborne via respiratory droplets (from an infected person coughing or sneezing). Others can then inhale them (unintentionally, of course!). It is still unclear whether simply touching contaminated surfaces, objects, or people can spread the virus.

What are the symptoms? There is a latency period. Symptoms appear 2-14 days after exposure. Like with so many other conditions, they include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Outcomes range in severity from no symptoms at all to death. There is no specific treatment for the virus. Rather, patients receive treatment for their symptoms.

Every employer should spend some time assessing the risk to their workforce and confirming whether or not they have reason for concern about employee exposures.

If we have workers at elevated risk, what should we do?

All employers should assess the hazards facing their workforce, evaluate the risk of exposure, and implement controls to minimize and contain exposures. The CDC, OSHA, DHS and WHO have released information for the public and employers to best protect individuals and workers from exposure to the coronavirus and on best practices to decrease transmission. Here are some steps you can take:

1. Identify workers at an elevated risk of exposure.

If you have workers involved in impacted industries, activities, and locations, you should identify which parts of your workforce are at risk and implement appropriate controls (read on).

2. Educate and communicate.

As with any potential hazard, an informed and trained workforce will best be able to prevent injury and illness. This is especially true in the case of a virus that spreads through person-to-person contact. Help your employees understand what coronavirus is, how it spreads, what their risk levels are, and how to prevent transmission and exposure. Support employees as they need to make adjustments to travel schedules or work procedures in order to stay safe.

Post signage and circulate educational information to employees (see detailed OSHA guidance), especially those individuals and locations at higher risk. Remind your workers to:

  • Avoid exposure to infected individuals. To be safe, avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid travel to areas where the virus is spreading, particularly China.
  • Wash hands frequently for 20 seconds using soap and water or sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Stay home when you are sick. Monitor for fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Seek medical attention immediately if you may have been exposed.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with tissue then discard the tissue properly.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • At high-risk workplaces, follow all PPE and bloodborne pathogens rules.

3. Prepare and plan. Support healthy workplaces and employees.

Beyond raising awareness, there are also specific steps employers can take to reduce the likelihood of workplace exposure and transmission. Consider the following:

  • Make hand sanitizers available to employees.
  • Encourage sick employees to stay at home. Be flexible with sick leave.
  • Collaborate with your temp and contractor firms to do the same.
  • Require employees to notify you if they are infected or exposed.
  • Respect changes to and limits on travel. Follow U.S. government travel advisories due to the coronavirus. Encourage video-conferencing and other tools instead.
  • Develop or update an infectious disease outbreak response plan (see CDC web site), which details how you will deal with exposed workers and infected workers and contaminated workplaces.
  • In case of a workplace exposure, determine which people and areas were exposed. Send affected employees to medical care or home. Take appropriate steps to decontaminate the environment. Follow OSHA standards on personal protective equipment, respiratory protection, bloodborne pathogens, hazard communications, and related issues.
  • Avoid discrimination. Apply policies consistently to all employees, and avoid implementation of policies that discriminate against individuals within a protected class. For instance, ask all employees who travel (not just those of certain races or national origins) about recent travel locations.

Contact Donna Pryor or Avi Meyerstein, attorneys from Husch Blackwell, with questions you may have.

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