Both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have published interim guidance for employers on planning for and protecting their workplaces from exposure to and infection with 2019-nCoV, more commonly referred to as the “2019 novel coronavirus.”
Industries With Heightened Exposure Risk
Most types of employees in most workplaces have a low risk of exposure and infection, similar to that of the general public. However, OSHA notes that employees in the following industries and occupations have an increased risk and “should remain aware of the evolving outbreak situation”:
- Border protection
- Solid waste and wastewater management operations
- Business travelers who travel internationally to areas with ongoing person-to-person transmission of the virus
OSHA’s interim guidance on the coronavirus includes links to specific guidance for each of the above categories.
CDC-Recommended Strategies for Minimizing Workplace Exposure
The CDC recommends that employers adopt the following protocols to help limit employee exposure and possible infection of others in the workplace:
- Encourage sick employees to stay home. The CDC recommends that employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness stay home and not come to work until they are fever- and symptom-free for at least 24 hours. Employers should ensure that their sick leave policies are flexible and that employees are aware of these policies. Given that employees may experience delays getting a doctor’s appointment, the CDC encourages employers to consider flexibility with any requirement that an employee provide a doctor’s note before returning to work. Employers should be mindful of their FMLA certification requirements in deciding whether to waive any medical documentation requirement as well as state and local sick leave laws limiting an employer’s right to request such documentation for short periods of absence.
- Separate sick employees. The CDC recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (such as cough and shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day “be separated from other employees and sent home immediately.” It recommends further: “Sick employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available).”
- Emphasize sanitary work practices. The CDC advises employers to display posters educating employees about staying home when sick, coughing and sneezing etiquette, and hand hygiene and to provide tissues, hand sanitizer, and no-touch trash receptacles for employee use. Employees should be instructed to clean their hands often with soap and water and/or hand sanitizer.
- Perform routine environmental cleaning. The CDC recommends routine cleaning of all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs, and that employers also consider providing disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use. Both the CDC and OSHA agree that no additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning is recommended at this time, because there is no evidence that the coronavirus is spread through environmental contamination.
- Prepare employees who travel on business. The CDC recommends that business travelers check the CDC’s travel health notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for the country to which they will be traveling. Specific travel information for travelers going to and returning from China can be found at on the CDC website. Employees who exhibit symptoms of acute respiratory illness should postpone travel and stay home if sick. An employee who become sick while traveling should notify a supervisor and seek medical care if necessary. For employees traveling internationally, a U.S. consulate office can assist in locating healthcare services.
What To Do With a Suspected Case in the Workplace
OSHA advises the following in cases of suspected employee exposure to the virus:
- Immediately isolate the potentially infectious individual or individuals by moving them to a location away from workers, customers, and other visitors.
- Take steps to limit the spread of the potentially infectious individual’s respiratory secretions, including by providing a facemask.
- In healthcare and other situations where non-employees may be suspected of having the coronavirus, isolate those individuals from those with confirmed cases of the virus to prevent further transmission.
- Restrict the number of personnel entering isolation areas, including the room of a patient with suspected/confirmed coronavirus.
- Protect employees who must work in close contact with an actual or suspected infected person by using additional engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices and PPE.
If an employee is confirmed to have coronavirus infection, the CDC recommends that employers inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to the virus. In this circumstance, it is critical that the employer maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed coronavirus should refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.