Employer Obligations to Protect Employees from Coronavirus

Now that 2019 novel coronavirus has made its way to the United States, employers are wondering what their obligations are in protecting employees. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a web page designed to educate and inform on hazard recognition, medical information, and control and prevention. OSHA highlights industries with employees who are at the highest risk, such as health care workers; airline and other travel industry personnel; mortuary and death-care workers; laboratory workers; border, customs, and quarantine workers; and emergency responders.

OSHA’s interim general guidance is for employers to follow recognized and generally accepted good infection control practices, using a combination of standardcontact, and airborne precautions (including wearing gowns, gloves, NIOSH-certified disposable N95 or better respirators, and eye/face protection) to protect workers with exposure to the virus. Other occupational exposures may require the protection of workers under the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act (29 USC 654(a)).

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has resource information here, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has information here. The CDC “always recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.”

While employers are limited by the Americans with Disabilities Act from making inquiries into medical conditions that are not job-related and consistent with business necessity, OSHA tells employees who think they may have been exposed to notify their employer immediately, monitor their health for 21 days, and seek medical attention if they develop symptoms.

Even though the risk of contracting 2019 novel coronavirus is remote, employers can use this opportunity to remind employees about practical actions we can all take to prevent the transmission of disease. And, employers can direct employees with questions to accurate information beyond the news reports.