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As concern about coronavirus – the upper-respiratory infection that was first diagnosed in humans in Wuhan, China in late 2019, and has spread to the United States in recent days – grows worldwide, employers face a series of questions regarding the impact the virus will have on the workplace.
What Must Employers Do to Maintain a Safe Workplace?
U.S. employers may have concerns about compliance with workplace safety laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Under OSHA, workers have the right to working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm; to receive information and training about workplace hazards; and to exercise their rights without retaliation, among others. To that end, employers should continue to monitor the development of the coronavirus and analyze whether employees could be at actual risk of exposure.
Employers may refer to OSHA’s Guidance for Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic. While not written to address coronavirus in particular, this guidance does provide steps employers can take to address public health crises. OSHA has also aggregated its resources relating directly to coronavirus, and will continue to update its guidance as conditions evolve.
Given that employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace for employees, employers should take some basic steps to help prevent the spread of disease and keep employees healthy:
- Educating employees on the signs and symptoms of the coronavirus and the precautions that can be taken to minimize the risk of contracting the virus. At this time, the CDC believes symptoms appear within two to fourteen days after exposure, with some infected individuals showing little to no signs.
- Providing hand sanitizer and hand washing stations, flu masks and facial tissues; encouraging employees to wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; and cleaning and disinfecting frequently-touched objects and surfaces.
- Minimizing unnecessary meetings and visitors, and assessing the risks of exposure by identifying workers who may have recently traveled to, come in direct contact with, or are scheduled to go to Wuhan City, and the Hubei Province in China.
- Implementing and/or evaluating workplace emergency response protocols.
- Implementing travel guidelines and procedures for approvals for travel to China.
- Allowing sick employees to work from home or take leave as appropriate.
Some employee concerns will be reasonably based and consistent with guidance from the World Health Organization, CDC, and OSHA; other concerns may be driven by unfounded fear or speculation. Employers should continue to monitor the information and recommendations from the CDC, OSHA, the State Department, along with information from other federal, state, and local government agencies involved in the response.
Update 3/12/220: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration released guidance to help employers prepare their workplaces for an outbreak of COVID-19 — along with a reminder that any incidents of employees contracting the novel coronavirus at work are recordable illnesses, subject to the same rules and failure-to-record fines as other workplace injuries and illnesses.
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