As concerns over coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) increase, employers are encouraged to take steps to help prevent workplace exposures to this infectious respiratory illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person contact (within about 6 feet). It may also spread by touching infected surfaces and then touching one’s own mouth, nose or eyes. Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
Experts caution that now is not the time to panic, but to stay informed and observe fundamental preventative measures. The CDC recognizes the important role employers play in controlling the spread of infectious diseases. Based on what is currently known about COVID-19, the CDC recommends the following measures for those working in non-healthcare settings.
Actively encourage sick employees to stay home.
- Employees with symptoms of acute respiratory illness should notify their supervisor and stay home. They should not return to work until they are symptom-free for at least 24 hours.
- Employees with symptoms should be separated from others and sent home immediately.
- Sick leave policies should be flexible and non-punitive to accommodate absences by symptomatic employees and employees needing to care for sick family members.
Emphasize preventative measures in the workplace.
- Encourage and reinforce preventative measures (staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, hand hygiene).
- Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Make tissues, no-touch disposal receptacles, soap and alcohol-based hand rubs available throughout the workplace.
Perform routine environmental cleaning.
- Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces (workstations, keyboards, countertops, doorknobs, etc.) using regular cleaning agents. The CDC is not recommending additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning at this time.
- Provide disposable wipes for employees to clean commonly used surfaces before each use.
Travelling employees and employers operating in healthcare settings or other high-risk workplaces should contact the appropriate authorities to determine what additional preventative measures should be taken. If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, the CDC recommends that employers inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to the virus in a manner that maintains the confidentiality and privacy required by applicable laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Employers should note that even though there no specific OSHA standard covering COVID-19, some OSHA requirements may apply to preventing occupational exposure to this new virus. The General Duty Clause, for example, requires employers to furnish workplaces that are free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.