Thoughts for Employers on the Novel (New) Coronavirus

Although news outlets may be preoccupied with alarming updates about the spread of coronavirus – including several cases identified in the United States – employers don’t need to panic quite yet. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has labeled the current coronavirus as a serious public health threat, but one where the immediate health risk to the general American public is considered low. At this point, the best course of action is to proactively arm yourself with information about best practices to keep your workforce safe and monitor developments to determine if additional steps will need to be taken.

Have a Conversation
Your employees’ anxiety related to coronavirus may be increasing. Currently, the CDC has stated those most at risk for coronavirus are the very young, elderly or those with chronic health issues, such as respiratory disease, diabetes, hypertension, or a history of heart related issues. Currently, the data related to fatalities reveals that men over the age of 60 are most at risk, and perhaps this is a result of failing to seek medical attention in a timely manner.

For your staff, now is the perfect time to begin a conversation. Educate your employees on how the coronavirus can be contacted. Establish a point of contact in human resources or elsewhere in your company to address any concerns your employees raise. Employers may be unaware of any employee health issue, such a hypertension. Establish a climate where employees will feel comfortable to reveal any ongoing health issues in a confidential setting and recognize that information must remain protected. As part of this process, train management and supervisors on overreaction impacts and the importance of adhering to anti-discrimination policies.

Encourage employees that may be showing signs of illness to remain at home. Any employee with a fever should not return to work until his or her temperature has been below 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 24 hours. If employees are presenting symptoms resembling the coronavirus, encourage them to contact a doctor to be tested. Remind employees about company policies related to absences and working from home, including vacation, sick pay, Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and short term disability.

Get Clean
One of the most effective ways to control the spread of the virus to simply clean. Encourage your employees to wash their hands frequently and make sure the proper hand washing soap or hand sanitizer is available. Recently, one medical expert suggested the use of hand lotion as well. The expert suggested the increased washing or use of hand sanitizer could lead to dry, cracked hands, which could present an entry point for the virus.

Increase custodial and/or sanitizing services as much as possible. Encourage employees to wipe down desk, telephones, door handles and countertops daily. Perhaps, establish a cleaning schedule and have a log sheet posted to confirm the area has been sanitized. Don’t forget about break rooms, coffee pots, vending machines, or other areas where employees or customers may gather.

Will OSHA get involved?
Maybe. Maybe not. It is really too early to tell how the outbreak of the coronavirus will impact Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforcement. Employers should be mindful of two areas of concern as it relates to requirements of OSHA compliance: chemicals and face mask/respirators. Employers may introduce new soaps, cleaners, disinfecting wipes or hand sanitizers to help with hygiene and cleaning. As those new chemicals are introduced, employers must ensure the Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for those items are obtained and added to the SDS library. It may also be prudent to revisit a hazardous communication training program with specific emphasis on cleaning products. Improper mixing of some cleaning products can be very dangerous and may release poisonous gas or have other adverse reactions.

The other area of concern for employers may include some form of respiratory protection. Within the medical community, the consensus is face masks are only necessary for those in the medical field while treating a patient who is infected with coronavirus. Most medical experts suggest that face masks do very little to protect from exposure to the virus as transmission is greatest due to a result of hands coming into contact with the virus and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth.

Within the OSHA Respiratory Standard (29.1910.134), the word ‘MAY’ makes it clear that when a respirator is not necessary to protect the health of an employee, it is the discretion of the employer to allow employees to wear a respirator. In essence, employers do not allow employees to wear a respirator if the employee is not subject to a job related hazard. While there may be no immediate need for an office employee to wear a respirator, the employer may choose to offer that option to the employee to reduce fear and anxiety for the employee. However, if the employee is using the respirator voluntarily, the employee must still complete the medical evaluation before use and comply with OSHA’s storage and maintenance requirements.

What about the employee that is refusing to come to work? An employee’s right to refuse to do a task is protected if all of the following conditions as met:
• Where possible, the employee has asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so; and
• The employee refused to work in “good faith.” This means that the employee must genuinely believe that an imminent danger exists; and
• A reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury; and
• There isn’t enough time, due to the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection.
At this point in the outbreak, the conditions are likely not met.

Final Thoughts
Encourage your employees to wash their hands frequently. Increase the cleaning and sanitizing schedule within the facility. Talk to your employees. Provide them with information about the virus and establish a means for employees to share concerns privately and respect confidential information. Ensure managers and supervisors are equipped to navigate employee interactions that may arise. Lastly, ensure your response to coronavirus doesn’t create a potential OSHA violation along the way.