The Coronavirus, The Workplace, and OSHA

Like others, when I first heard of the Coronavirus, I thought it was something that would spoil my beer of choice in the refrigerator.  However, I soon learned that the coronavirus is a respiratory illness reportedly linked to a large seafood and animal market in Wuhan, China.  Symptoms include common cold-like signs such as fever, cough and shortness of breath. In severe cases, the virus has led to pneumonia and kidney failure.  The deaths appear to occur most often with the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

The Center of Disease Control (CDC) believes that symptoms may appear within two to fourteen days after exposure.  There are now reported cases in the United States and it is anticipated to continue to spread.  This should be a good time to review your safety program and start making plans in the event this virus starts to significantly impact our area.

This is an airborne virus that can easily spread from one person to another.  China has reported that it can spread before any symptoms are displayed by the infirmed, however, this has not been confirmed by the CDC.  As a result, there has been large purchases of N95 respirators throughout the country.  If you don’t believe that, go to Amazon and do a search for N95.  You’ll see most brands are now out of stock or have achieved gouging type pricing.

The best prevention to this virus is simple good hygiene routine, which includes:

  • Frequently washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Stay home if you are sick (so you do not spread the illness to other people).
  • Use a tissue, or cough and sneeze into your arm, not your hand. Turn away from other people.
  • Use single-use tissues. Dispose of the tissue immediately.
  • Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or using tissues.
  • Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth (viruses can transfer from your hands and into the body).
  • Do not share cups, glasses, dishes or cutlery.

OSHA has issued a guidance document and OSHA makes it clear that there is a requirement that employers keep a record of certain work-related illness.  While there is a regulatory exemption for recording instances of the standard cold and flu, OSHA has deemed the 2019 Novel Coronavirus a recordable illness when a worker is infected on the job.  How can they prove the infection came from the workplace?  It would be difficult, however, the laborers or other workers not typically provided medical insurance will quickly learn to file a Workers’ Compensation claim instead of paying out of pocket and if denied you will face the possibility of a whistleblower’s referral.

Additionally, that guidance documents that the OSHA General Duty Clause requires employers to furnish “a place of employment which [is] free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause the death or serious physical harm to … employees.” This can become a citation if the employer does not enact some readily achievable steps to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus within the workplace.

Although not directly in that document, the use of respirators at the workplace is regulated by OSHA.  Using respirators to prevent the spread of the virus requires the user to have a medical evaluation, a fit test and training.  My recommendation would be that unless there is a legitimate outbreak in the area that mandates the use of extra precautions, then the worker should bring his/her own respirator and sign a voluntary use of respirator form.

Also not in the guidance document is 1926.51(a)(4) and 1910.141(b)(1)(vi) which prohibits the use of a common drinking cup.  The entire purpose of this regulation was to prevent the spread of disease so you should monitor the water stations to make sure enough cups or individual water bottles are available.

In the event the virus enters our south Florida paradise, consider the following to help protect your worksite:

  • Provide training, at minimum a safety break, about the virus and what your company is doing to help prevent the spread on the jobsite.
  • Providing clean hand washing facilities with soap.
  • Offering alcohol-based hand sanitizers when regular facilities are not available.
  • Provide boxes of tissues and encourage their use.
  • Reminding staff to not share cups, glasses, dishes and cutlery. Be sure dishes are washed in soap and water after use.
  • Provide ventilation if possible.

Hopefully, this will fizzle and go away.  However, a safety professional knows that there is no such thing as being overly prepared.  Once we learn of other precautions, we will be happy to pass them along.