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Coronavirus and Employer Obligations

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause respiratory illness in people. Coronaviruses circulate among animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats.

As headlines continue to emerge every day on the spread of the 2019 coronavirus outbreak, employers are struggling to determine how to respond. The respiratory virus first identified in Wuhan, China in late 2019 has recently spread to the United States and is growing worldwide. The first confirmed case in the United States was reported on January 21, 2020, following person-person spread with the virus on January 30, 2020.

In addition, China has also reported the spread of the virus from infected patients to healthcare workers. Every employer should evaluate the risks and analyze their defenses against worker exposure. Companies are also advised to avoid all non-essential traveling to China. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that exposure risk may be elevated for some workers who interact with potentially infected travelers abroad including those involved in:

  • healthcare,
  • airline employees and border protection,
  • solid waste and wastewater management
  • laboratories
  • death care

There is still much more to uncover about the symptoms and essentially how the transfer to person to person occurs. Current cases have ranged from mild symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath to rather severe cases causing death. Symptoms appear in as few as 2 to 14 days after exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spread from person to person most likely occurs among close contact of about 6 feet. Person-person transfer is thought to be airborne as a result of respiratory droplets that occur when an infected person coughs or sneezes near another which then lands in the mouths or noses of those nearby or possibly inhaled into the lungs.

The CDC and OSHA have provided general guidance for all workers and individuals regardless of specific exposure risk. Below are a few practices you can implement to decrease exposure to coronavirus:

  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. When soap and running water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand rub with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands that are visibly soiled
  • Make hand sanitizers available to employees.
  • Encourage sick employees to stay at home. Be flexible with sick leave.
  • Collaborate with your temp and contractor firms to do the same.
  • Require employees to notify you if they are infected or exposed.
  • Respect changes to and limits on travel. Follow U.S. government travel advisories due to the coronavirus. Encourage video-conferencing and other tools instead.
  • Develop or update an infectious disease outbreak response plan (see CDC web site), which details how you will deal with exposed workers and infected workers and contaminated workplaces.
  • In the case of workplace exposure, determine which people and areas were exposed. Send affected employees to medical care or home. Take appropriate steps to decontaminate the environment. Follow OSHA standards on personal protective equipment, respiratory protection, bloodborne pathogens, hazard communications, and related issues.

It is important to educate and spread awareness on the best safety practices between the workforce and the general public. Knowing the risks and hazards and consistently applying the provided procedures will further decrease exposure to the coronavirus.

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