Coronavirus (COVID-19) - Protecting Your Employees

 

            The number of people in the United States who have tested positive for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is low but on the rise. From an occupational health and safety standpoint, one of the best things a company can do is help their employees become educated about the virus and develop a plan to protect their employees and customers.

 

            COVID-19 is new. Scientists, governments and healthcare professionals are still learning about the disease. Many agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) are actively updating their websites. This article does not cover everything about the disease and is meant to be a starting point for those concerned about occupational safety and health. When making decisions, it is important to make sure the latest information from reliable sources is being used.

 

Overview

 

            The CDC reports that COVID-19 is most likely communicable; it seems to spread from person to person and in some cases people may be able to spread the disease before they develop symptoms themselves. The CDC also explains that symptoms of the disease can appear between “2 and 14 days after exposure” to the virus and include cough, fever, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. According to WHO, “in more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.” There is currently no vaccine or cure for COVID-19. Treatment is supportive in nature. While the risk to most communities in the United States is currently low, those who suspect they are sick should contact their healthcare provider and avoid contact with others. Employers should encourage these employees to stay at home.

 

            Testing must be performed to confirm cases of the disease. At this time, testing for the disease must be performed by an approved laboratory. Testing may be requested by a healthcare professional if a person meets certain criteria (i.e. a person is sick and had contact with someone who has COVID-19, or a person recently traveled to a high risk area). Once a healthcare professional has determined a person meets the criteria and has had contact with local health departments, a respiratory specimen is collected (i.e. a cheek swab or sputum sample). The specimen is then sent to be analyzed by the lab. As more labs are approved, the availability of testing may increase. As of now, testing is not available for occupational health purposes. That being said, NMS Health does offer infectious disease / respiratory infection screenings as a way to identify potential coronavirus infection in candidates or employees.

 

            In February, a study was published by The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention on COVID-19 in China. This study reports that the majority of cases (81% of 44,415) were considered mild. The overall case-fatality rate was 2.3% (of 44,672); it was 8% in those aged 70-79 and 14.8% in those 80 years old and older. Like other respiratory viruses, those most at risk of severe symptoms and death are those who are older, have comorbidities and are immunocompromised. Many people who are infected recover on their own.

 

Developing Plans to Protect Workers

 

            The burden of disease in the workplace can be heavy. Contingency plans may make that burden lighter to bear. Anticipating a local outbreak may cause some worry in the workplace; this is a great time for employers to show workers they care. Executives, managers, human resource and/or safety personnel should take time to develop COVID-19 plans. These don’t need to be wildly elaborate but should cover education for employees on how to prevent the spread of disease and establish company expectations for sick and at-risk employees. These plans will look different for every company, but both communication and flexibility will be very important.

 

            The CDC has published COVID-19 interim guidance for businesses and employers in non-healthcare settings. This guidance is aimed at helping companies prevent workplace exposure to COVID-19. Additionally, WHO has a web page devoted to advice for the general public. Both those sources were used to develop the following list of suggestions for companies looking to limit the spread of diseases and support their employees:

 

  • Encourage employees to stay at home and see a healthcare professional if they are coughing, have a fever, shortness of breath or are experiencing other respiratory symptoms. Employees who are scared to lose their jobs may come to work sick if they don’t understand company expectations during a COVID-19 outbreak. Help them understand their employment will not be impacted if they stay at home when they are sick during this time.
  • If employees do come to work sick, consider sending them home or giving them work to do where they are not in close contact with other employees.
  • Encourage employees to stay at home if they have had contact with anyone who has COVID-19, even if they themselves are not yet symptomatic. Decide what to do in instances where people run out of Paid Time Off (PTO), but still need to be at home.
  • Be lenient with those who are taking care of sick family members. Brush up on the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requirements so you can help employees through that process.
  • Where possible, allow employees to work from home.
  • Consider limiting international business travel.
  • Hold a training where employees are reminded to:
  1.       Wash their hands often: Hands should be washed for 20 seconds with soap and warm water. If hand sanitizer is used, it should be at least 60% alcohol.
  2.       Respect the personal space of others: Stay several feet away from those who are sick to avoid breathing in droplets that are created by coughing and sneezing. Those droplets can carry the virus. 
  3.       Cover their nose and mouth when they cough and sneeze: This will help protect other people.
  4.       Not touch their faces: Hands can pick up viruses if they touch contaminated objects throughout the day. Viruses can be transported into the body through the nose, mouth, or eyes.
  • Sanitize commonly contacted surfaces like doorknobs, bathroom faucets, office tables, power switches and phones often.
  • Utilize multiple avenues of communication, such as emails, posters, company websites, training and social media to inform employees about company policies, basic hygiene practices and emergency situations if they arise.

 

Developing Plans to Protect Workers in High Risk Occupations

 

        Those who work in aviation, laboratories, dentistry, waste management, border protection, deathcare, and healthcare are at higher risk than others for contracting COVID-19. Employers in these fields need to be extra vigilant in establishing or enforcing policies and procedures aimed at limiting the spread of communicable diseases. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established industry-specific interim guidance for these high-risk sectors. Those wishing to know more about protecting their employees in these types of jobs should consult the OSHA interim pages. The CDC also has extensive information for those working in healthcare that can be accessed here.

 

            Truly protecting employees is multifaceted. Employers need to perform risk assessments to determine how and why employees may encounter the COVID-19 virus at work or during work related activities. Once a risk assessment has been performed, efforts to control those risks should be implemented. While Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like respirators, gloves, and gowns are necessary and appropriate in situations where employees may be exposed to the coronavirus, employers should not rely on PPE alone to protect employees. Engineering controls such as proper ventilation, administrative controls such as limiting the number of people who work with a confirmed COVID-19 patient, the establishment of safe work practices, and rigorous cleaning and disinfecting have a part to play in the prevention of spreading this disease. As considerations are made for employee safety, be thorough and make sure to train employees well. Their safety and health depend on it.

 

NMS Health is an occupational health screening company that can help you administer testing for your employees or candidates anywhere in the country. If you’d like to learn more about how we help our clients save time on pre-employment medical testing while providing a national test solution, check out an overview of our services.

 

Written by Alexandra Cox