According to the OSH Act (Occupational Safety and Health Act), ever since 1970, every employer is required to “assure safe and healthful working conditions” for their employees. In the light of the COVID-19 outbreak, protocols for occupational health and safety have been revised and updated accordingly. To endure the challenges of COVID-19, as an essential employer, you need to learn how to make your business safer for employees and customers alike.
Who are essential workers and what are their rights and obligations in the light of COVID-19?
The Vermont Department of Health describes as essential all businesses that provide necessary goods and services, including groceries, pharmacies, and hardware stores. However, the list is in truth much longer and depends on the jurisdiction. Typically, industries that provide essential services, aside from healthcare, include food services, electricity and water supply, as well as firefighting, law enforcement, and education.
Note that OSHA regulations allow employees to refuse to come to work if they expect to be in imminent danger. Employers are obliged to keep their workers safe, follow the health and safety guidelines, and reduce the impact of the outbreak. At the same time, they are protecting their businesses, employees, consumers, and the public. Even though the employers are held liable, it is also the responsibility of workers to adhere to the guidelines. Months since the outbreak, the pandemic is still not fully contained and we all must do our part.
What can essential employers do to keep their workers safe?
Every country in the world is quickly adapting to the ongoing circumstances to ensure the safest working conditions for its working population amid the pandemic. The U.S. companies need to implement OSHA Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, taking the greatest care of employees with jobs that classify at very high-risk exposure.
In general, and regardless of the industry, essential employers should focus on these practices to keep their workers safe:
- Workers able to work from home should be encouraged to do so. Carpooling, on the other hand, should be discouraged.
- Emphasizing infection prevention measures implies having signs and posters that would remind workers of the risks.
- Employers should conduct symptom assessment. Employees should measure their temperature before they enter the facility and make sure they don’t have any symptoms before starting work.
- Employees should be informed in detail about their occupational health program and then advised to self-monitor. If symptoms do occur during the work hours, the employer must send the worker home. Already ill employees should stay at home.
- Wearing a mask should be obligatory. Workers should wear face masks or cloth face coverings at all times.
- The percentage of outdoor air should be increased in all rooms in the facility. Also, employers should encourage respiratory etiquette, i.e. employees should cover their mouths with disposable tissues when they cough or sneeze.
- Employers should promote frequent hand washing, but equally important, provide sufficient hand-washing and hand-sanitizing stations throughout the facility.
- Physical and social distancing should be applied at all times. All employees should stay 6 feet away from others and social distancing should be maintained at the workplace. If that is not possible, employers should consider relocating to a spacious open-plan office.
- Routine cleaning and disinfection are vital. All shared spaces, high-traffic areas, and equipment should be regularly cleaned and disinfected. Employees should not share objects like headsets and other items kept near the mouth or nose.
- Employers would need to adapt workplaces to keep both workers and customers safe. These adaptations may include transparent plexiglass partitions, for example.
- Essential employers should adapt work hours and consider introducing extra shifts without overlap to spread out the workforce.
Advice for essential employers: flexibility and protection
To keep your workers safe, it is not only important to take preemptive measures and protect them at the workplace. Essential employers should also focus on ensuring flexible sick leave policies. This means that employees shouldn’t need to bring notes from their healthcare providers to validate their absence due to respiratory illness. Healthcare workers already have too much work.
Essential employers who employ workers whose first language is not English should provide the procedures in the workers’ native language. Protecting all employees includes contacting businesses that outsourced workers or provided you with contract workers; ensure that the absence of those workers due to sickness is not sanctioned or penalized.
Also, it is very important to point out that the above-mentioned guidance is a general one, that can’t apply to every situation and business. Essential businesses should adhere to OSHA and CDC guidelines for more details. Note that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) safety practices should be implemented if employees suspect potential exposure, even if they remain asymptomatic.
Some final thoughts
Employers are currently facing disruptions on several levels. To keep workers safe, the employer must take all of them into account. A significant number of employees could be absent due to sickness, being caregivers to children whose daycares are closed, or have at-risk family members they need to care for.
Evidently, consumers’ purchasing power has dropped and priorities in the type of goods and shopping patterns have changed in the face of the outbreak. Consumers are likely to choose home delivery service or shop at off-peak hours. Businesses can expect disruptions and delays in the supply and delivery chains, especially if they expect shipments from faraway locations.
In light of these unfortunate circumstances, essential employers should openly communicate with their workers. The employer should regularly dedicate time to ease employees’ concerns regarding their salaries, health and sick leave, safety, shifts and work hours, and other issues that may arise. Absenteeism can be avoided if workers are well-informed and feel safe at their workplace.
Wendy Garcia is a full-time mid-level manager in the tourism industry and a guest blogger at Purple Heart Moving Group. She is thrilled to explore a vast range of topics and share her analyses with the public.