I recently outlined the steps the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends building owners take when preparing their buildings to be re-occupied after the lifting of the COVID-19 pandemic-related government shutdowns (see: “Building Owners Must Have a Plan”). Because OSHA obligates employers to “furnish to each of [their] employees …a place of employment [that is] free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to [their] employees,” employers occupying those buildings too must have a safe workplace plan in place.
Assessing a Safe Workplace During COVID-19
Initially, employers should assess their workspace and determine how their workers might be exposed to potential workplace hazards that could increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. One of the main areas of concern for any employer, of course, is reducing or eliminating close contact (i.e., closer than 6 feet) between employees. This entails identifying those spaces where close contact is most likely to occur. Once these areas are identified, steps should be taken to isolate workers from the hazard. According to the CDC, these include:
- Modifying or adjusting seating, furniture, and workstations to maintain social distancing of six feet between employees, where possible
- Use methods to physically separate employees in all areas of the building, including work areas and other areas such as meeting rooms, break rooms, parking lots, entrance and exit areas, and locker rooms
- Stagger shifts, start times, and break times as feasible to reduce the number of employees in common areas such as screening areas, break rooms, and locker rooms
- Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces
In addition, it is critical for employers to communicate with their employees the risks of transmission and how the risk may be mitigated while in the workplace. The CDC recommends employers:
- Establish policies and practices for social distancing:
- Remind employees that people may be able to spread COVID-19 even if they do not show symptoms.; consider all close interactions (within six feet) with employees, clients, and others as a potential source of exposure
- Discourage handshaking, hugs, and fist bumps
- Encourage the use of outdoor seating areas and social distancing for any small-group activities such as lunches, breaks, and meetings
- Encourage employees who have symptoms of COVID-19 or who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 to notify their supervisor and stay home
- Consider conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks (e.g., symptoms and/or temperature screening) of employees before they enter the worksite
Lastly, employers should document, document, document all the steps taken by the employer to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19 in the workplace. Documentation will be critical to demonstrating the reasonable steps an employer took to protect its workers should any of its workers contract the virus.
The foregoing is a general outline of some of the issues an employer will need to address in order to protect its employees from exposure to COVID-19 and itself from liability claims from anyone who believes they were infected with the virus while at the employer’s workplace.
If you have any questions about this post or any related matter, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For other topics related to COVID-19, visit our Coronavirus Thought Leadership Connection.
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