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What to Do If You Suspect an Employee Has COVID-19

Toby Graham /

Uh-oh. One of your employees has a fever of 102º F.

And a dry cough.

…And she’s short of breath.

Looks like you probably have a case of COVID-19 on your hands.

What do you do next?

Unfortunately, as of May 2020, there’s no one perfect answer—no generally agreed-upon protocol any organization can use to handle the situation completely risk-free. After all, each case of COVID-19 is different, every workplace is different, and every individual is unique.

But that doesn’t mean you have to panic or improvise. Environment, health, and safety experts such as the ones here at KPA can work with you to develop a coronavirus response plan you can use to address the situation quickly and minimize the spread of infection.

In the interest of keeping as many people safe and healthy as possible, we wanted to share some overall guidance with our blog readers for free. Here are 11 steps to take when you suspect one of your employees is sick with COVID-19:

1. Don PPE

First, make sure that you and other employees are protected. Anyone handling the case or in proximity to the person suspected to be infected needs to put on all proper personal protective equipment—face masks, gloves, and eye protection, as well as gowns, if you have them.

2. Isolate the Suspected Victim

You can’t just tell someone who might have COVID-19 to walk out and go home. They may not be able to make it home on their own. You need to

a) take care of the individual as much as possible and

b) limit the spread of the disease.

Isolate the person—ideally somewhere outside any high-traffic areas of your facilities. Best case – you’ve identified this location well before the situation arises.

3. Notify HR Immediately

As soon as the individual is isolated, notify your human resources department of the case. Your HR professionals will need to contact the employee and discuss next steps.

4. Call a Healthcare Provider

Unless you have a medical professional on staff, this will likely be a third-party healthcare provider, and they’re probably going to take information down over the phone. Depending on the employee’s symptoms and the severity of symptoms, the healthcare provider may refer them to a hospital or other medical facility, or direct you to send the person home immediately, along with other instructions. Whatever they tell you, you need to follow their instructions completely and without delay.

5. Coordinate Transportation

Your employee may need to be picked up by a medical team or an ambulance, or perhaps driven home by an emergency contact or member of their household. Be ready to coordinate with the person or team taking care of transportation.

6. Provide the Employee with Water, a Face Mask, and a Communication Device

For as long as the employee is kept on-site, make sure you’re providing them with water, a face mask, and any other supplies or treatment as approved by a healthcare provider. Before they go, make sure they’re wearing PPE necessary to limit infection of others (e.g. a face mask) and have a communication device (e.g. phone) through which you can stay in touch with them.

7. If Time Allows, Interview the Employee and Clear an Optimal Exit Route

If possible—for instance, if the employee’s case isn’t severe and transportation can’t arrive immediately—take the time to have your HR and/or legal department interview the employee. Find which areas of your workplace they’ve touched or occupied recently, as well as which co-workers they’ve recently been in contact with. Be careful here—there are numerous legal issues around collecting and sharing this kind of information. Talk to your legal advisor to develop your plan of action further.

Next (again, if time permits), clear an exit route for the employee. Make the route as short and unobstructed as possible. It’s important to minimize the number of people and objects between where the employee is isolated and the exit door.

8. Work with the Healthcare Provider to Determine if the Employee Will Be Tested

Once the employee has been transported offsite, contact the healthcare provider again to determine whether the person will be tested for COVID-19. You can ask about this in the initial phone call, but in all likelihood you may need to wait until the situation is stable and the provider has more information, which is why we’re including this as a separate step.

9. Meet Virtually with Your COVID-19 Response Team to Coordinate Next Steps

The work isn’t over when the employee leaves the building. Contact your COVID-19 response team—virtually over the internet or phone, not in-person—to figure out what needs to happen next. Will the facility need to be evacuated and closed, and for how long? What’s your sanitation plan? Depending on how long the employee was suspected to be infected and the extent to which they traveled throughout your facilities, you may need to evacuate, close, clean, and disinfect multiple locations. Will you need to administer tests now to all employees, or try to secure tests for them? How will the case be communicated to the workforce? Your response team will help you determine these and other issues.

10. Follow Up and Follow Through

If COVID-19 infection is confirmed, implement those plans and procedures discussed in step 9 as soon as possible. If testing is unavailable or comes back negative, contact your response team again to figure out which precautionary measures still need to be taken. Of course, you may not want to wait until testing results come back to execute your plan. In any case, you’ll need to work with your response team to determine your next course of action.

11. Document Everything

Finally, make sure to document the case for the purposes of Occupational Safety and Health Administration recordkeeping and reporting. You can’t afford to disregard this step. Given the constantly-changing state of OSHA’s COVID-19 regulations, you should err on the side of caution. Right now, enforcement is largely up to the discretion of an investigator or area officer, and rules and guidance could look drastically different next month or next week. Make sure you capture as much data as you can and keep that data close on hand.

Remember: many cases of COVID-19 can be presymptomatic or asymptomatic. These are steps you can take in the event of an apparent infection, but you’ll need to plan for preventing outbreaks regardless of any one employee’s symptoms. That may include implementing social distancing protocols, regimented hand-washing, and sanitation schedules, as well as closing shared amenities, erecting partitions, using PPE, and coordinating other administrative and engineering controls.

For more information about keeping your workforce safe, healthy, and productive, check out KPA’s Return to Work Safely program.

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