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How Employers Can Manage Coronavirus Anxiety and Safety

KPA /
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Right now, the world is facing a global pandemic of COVID-19, also known as the 2019 novel coronavirus or just “the coronavirus.” While it’s not quite the 1918 Pandemic, increasing coronavirus anxiety has prompted much media attention and public health concerns.

Like us, you’ve probably been getting a lot of questions about your department’s or business’s response to the coronavirus. We have some environmental health and safety (EHS) and human resources (HR) guidance to help you manage coronavirus anxiety and risk at work. Remember our guidance shouldn’t take the place of any legal advice about your business.

How Are You Addressing Coronavirus Anxiety Among Your Employees? Consider a Task Force.

Something that can help mitigate people’s anxiety and fear can be a transparent task force planning the company’s response to the coronavirus. Whether it’s your business’s senior leadership, HR, and/or safety, gather representation from several departments to agree on how the organization should respond to employees, customers, and the public becoming sick.

Consider the following topics to include in a preparedness and response plan:

  • Who can or can’t work from home? What resources are needed to work from home?
  • Internal and customer communication strategies
  • Sanitation strategies for your facility, employees, and for customers
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) evaluation
  • How to handle any employees impacted by travel

What Should You Do If Your State Has Declared A State of Emergency?

If you’re located in a state or local jurisdiction that has declared a state of emergency then you may be able to still require employees to come to work.

If employees feel this is putting their lives in danger, they can work with their HR or reach out to leadership with their concerns. If they continue to feel this is a dangerous request, employees may reach out to their state labor department. Most employers are not required to pay non-exempt employees if the state declares a state of emergency and the employees do not work due to facility closure. The employer can allow employees to use paid time off to supplement the time they are missing or per written company policy. Always check with your state wage and hour laws to ensure compliance.

How Do You Protect Public-Facing Employees?

The U.S. Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently issued an alert that captures how to minimize and prevent employees’ exposure to the coronavirus if their job is public-facing.

Recently, some states have issued “shelter in place” and social distancing orders. Other states and counties have issued closures to public gathering places to prevent the spread of the virus. These orders and closures may also affect whether brick and mortor businesses remain open. Because things are changing quickly, always check with your state and local governments to ensure compliance.

Assuming that your business isn’t affected by these order, you or your business’s task force should:

  • Identify and evaluate if there are any hazardous conditions that employees may be exposed during their job tasks
  • Determine what the employees’ risk of exposure is to the coronavirus
  • Identify and implement measures that will help prevent employees’ exposure. Preventive measures could include physical barriers, distancing/isolating from other employees, additional PPE, cleaning supplies and practices
  • Consider if you need to communicate with your customer base about your response to the coronavirus

 

Should Employees Work from Home During the Coronavirus?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Guidance currently says that employers should actively recommend sick employees stay home, particularly if they have a respiratory illness or have a fever. They should only come back to work if they are fever free or don’t show fever symptoms for at least 24 hours. Remember “shelter in place,” social distancing orders and other forced closures may also affect these policies, always check your state/local government resources.

Consider if all or some of your employees can work remotely. Keep in mind the jobs and tasks that could be completed remotely and the hardware or software that these individuals would need to work on their projects. Think about the necessary communications and measurements your organization would need to put in place to ensure the change still meets business goals.

If you’re considering a required work from home policy for all employees

Before implementing a mandated work from home policy, consult an attorney to ensure the policy also complies the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in addition to the other regulatory agencies.

Is it a violation of ADA to require employees to work from home? 

It depends on the employee’s situation that led to them working from home. You will want to work with your legal counsel if there are any potential violations to the ADA.

What If Employees Can’t Work Remotely?

It can’t be helped that some employees will be unable to fulfill their jobs unless they are at work. Assuming that your organization does not fall under a state or local government closure, your organization may want to:

  • Take additional time and resources to ensure the proper cleaning and sanitization of the workplace, particularly in highly trafficked areas. We’ve got some guidance about that here and here.
  • Promote proper hygiene at work. For example, clearly communicate and display posters outlining hand hygiene, how to contain germs, and what to do when you’re sick.
  • Place additional sanitation products, like gloves and soap, in easily accessible areas for employees and customers.
  • Encourage employees to use the business’s sick time or leave time leave policies if they’re sick and unable to go to work.

Although employees can’t use the Family Medical Leave Act to prevent themselves from getting sick, they could use it if they need to care for their own serious health condition or for a family member. You’ll want to check your state’s laws about paid family medical leave too.

Should We All Be Wearing Masks?

The U.S. Surgeon General has asked the general public to stop purchasing masks because they aren’t effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus. Medical professionals (who are at higher risk for contracting the virus) or people who are already sick should prioritized access to any available masks.

However, you may start to see employees wear masks or ask if they can wear them at work. You’ll have to decide as an organization what actions are acceptable in the workplace for employees to protect themselves. A few reminders about respiratory protection:

If employees are requesting N95 respirators or any respirator/filtering facepiece

Your organization has the option not to permit the voluntary use of respirators or filtering facepieces if there isn’t an existing hazard that requires its use. If there is no reasonable expectation that one of your workers will contract (or have contracted) the virus, then an existing hazard doesn’t exist.

If your organization decides to permit the use of the filtering facepiece (dust mask or N95 respirator) 

If you’re okay with the voluntary use of dust masks and/or N95 respirators, then you need to provide the individual(s) with a copy of “Appendix D of 29 CFR 1910.134 Information for Employees Using Respirators When Not Required Under the Standard.” You’ll also want to remind employees about the difference between surgical masks and N95 masks.

If your organization permits the use of an elastomeric respirator or greater 

Then you’ll need to provide your workers with a written respiratory program containing the medical evaluations portion and the proper respiratory hygiene, a medical evaluation of the people wearing the respirators, and “Appendix D of 29 CFR 1910.134 Information for Employees Using Respirators When Not Required Under the Standard.”

Remind all employees about the proper donning and removing of Personal Protective Equipment procedures

Masks or respirators should fit comfortably around the bridge of the nose and be snug to the face and below the chin. The ties or bands should be secured in the middle of the head and neck. If an employee is wearing a respirator, they should be fit-checked. Remember that the front of the mask or respirator should not be touched when it’s being removed. Remove and discard the mask or respirators only using the ties or bands, starting from the bottom.

What Are Other Coronavirus Prevention Practices?

At your location(s), consider taking extra precautions and time to clean and disinfect all objects and work surfaces that are frequently touched. Use a household cleaning spray or wipe and be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions. You may want to read through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approved disinfectant labels for language about “emerging viral pathogens.” These products are expected to be able to fight against the virus.

Personal prevention and hygiene

When it comes to personal prevention, the CDC also put together excellent personal preventive measures, including:

  • Handwashing often with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds, after using the bathroom, before eating anything, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. Handwashing is probably the most important step you can take to prevent getting sick.
  • If soap and water aren’t easily accessible, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (a minimum of 60% alcohol).
  • When it’s possible, avoid using other people’s phones, workspaces, tools, etc.
  • Tissues should be used to cover your cough or sneeze. Throw it out after.
  • Avoid close contact with people who have illness symptoms.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home if you’re sick!

Should We Close the Business If Most Employees Are Sick?

The short answer is not if you can help it. This answer, of course, depends upon whether your business is affected by any “shelter in place” order or order to close.

If you close your business, and no one is working remotely, your employees should be paid accordingly 

Some states may require employers to use on-call time, standby, or reporting time, so check with your local and state resources for regulations you may need to follow. Additionally, review your collective bargaining agreements, if applicable.

Hourly, nonexempt employees are only paid for hours worked and may use paid time off programs (vacation, sick, etc.). Check with your local and state resources for regulations you may need to follow.

For exempt employees, who worked any time during the workweek of business closure, they will need to receive a full week’s pay. You can require that they use all available paid time off. If the business has been closed for an entire workweek, the exempt employee has performed zero work, they can be required to use their paid time off. If paid time off is exhausted, this is the only scenario you can deduct full days’ pay. When in doubt, consult your employment attorney.

Still have questions? Check back here for updates or you can contact us.

KPA Consultants Zach Pucillo, CSP, CHMM, and Brianna Stashak, PHRca, SHRMP-CP, contributed to this article.

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