At this time, there is no evidence of widespread transmission of the coronavirus (formally known as 2019-nCoV) in the United States, and without sustained human-to-human transmission, most American workers are not at significant risk of infection.
That being said, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a Public Health Emergency and the Trump Administration announced that all non-U.S. citizens (with exceptions detailed in Section 2 of the proclamation) who had been physically present in China (not including Hong Kong and Macau) within the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the U.S. are temporarily banned from entering the United States.
The federal government has also implemented screening measures at several U.S. airports. However, travelers infected with the coronavirus may still arrive in the United States and it is always best to be prepared. As such, many employers are seeking guidance on how best to respond to workplace concerns, especially those with employees engaged in international travel, as well as employers in the healthcare, airline, and border protection industries.
Signs and Symptoms:
According to the CDC, 2019-nCoV is a respiratory illness and is related to, but not the same as, MERS and SARS, both of which are coronaviruses. Some of the signs and symptoms of the 2019-nCoV have been noted to include,
- Shortness of breath
It is important to note that people infected with the virus may have the above symptoms as well as other, or even no, symptoms.
OSHA Standards and Maintaining a Safe Workplace:
Per OSHA, workers have the right to working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm; to receive information and training about workplace hazards; and to exercise their rights without retaliation, among others. To that end, employers should continue to monitor the development of the coronavirus and analyze whether employees could be at actual risk of exposure.
Existing OSHA standards apply to protecting workers from 2019 novel coronavirus; this includes,
- Personal Protective Equipment standards, which require using gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection.
- The General Duty Clause, which requires employers to provide to each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
Steps to Prevent Worker Exposure:
Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace for employees, and the best way to prevent infection is to avoid exposure. Below are some basic steps to help prevent the spread of disease and keep employees healthy:
- Educating employees on the signs and symptoms of the coronavirus and the precautions that can be taken to minimize the risk of contracting the virus.
- Providing hand sanitizer and hand washing stations, flu masks and facial tissues; encouraging employees to wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds;
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces;
- Minimizing unnecessary meetings and visitors and assessing the risks of exposure by identifying workers who may have recently traveled to, come in direct contact with, or are scheduled to go to China (not including Hong Kong and Macau).
- Implementing and/or evaluating workplace emergency response protocols.
- Implementing travel guidelines and procedures for approvals for travel to China.
- Allowing sick employees to work from home or take leave as appropriate.
If an employee becomes ill and/or the employer suspects the employee has been exposed to someone with the virus, there are several things that an employer can do:
- Instruct the employee to stay home for up to 14 days to ensure the employee does not show symptoms of the virus.
- Instruct the employee to obtain a fitness-for-duty/return-to-work notice from their physician.
- Provide leave to employees until the incubation period is exhausted or they return with a fitness-for-duty notice. These leaves of absence should be administered consistent with the employer’s normal leave of absence policies and may be paid or unpaid.
Whether the FMLA applies depends on each specific situation. While FMLA regulations state that “the flu” ordinarily does not meet the Act’s definition of a “serious health condition,” the flu can still qualify as a serious health condition under the FMLA if it requires inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.
Based on recent reports, the Coronavirus could qualify as a serious health condition depending on the specific situation. Because of that, an eligible employee who contracts the Coronavirus—or one with a covered family member who comes down with the virus—may qualify for FMLA leave.
Additionally, eligible employees might be entitled to FMLA leave when taking time off for examinations to determine if a serious health condition exists, and evaluations of the condition, under the FMLA definition of “treatment.” Accordingly, an eligible employee may need FMLA leave to see a health care provider for the purpose of testing for Coronavirus—something that may become more common if the virus spreads.
Reminder: the coronavirus can impact people of all origins and nationalities. Singling out an employee(s) because of their ethnicity for testing, mandated leave, or other virus-related actions constitutes discrimination under Title VII and poses significant liability for your company. In addition, The ADA prohibits an employer from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations of employees, except under limited circumstances. Ensure all supervisors and managers are aware of this.
The EEOC has released a fact sheet with information regarding pandemic influenzas and the ADA.
All workers who may be exposed
Individuals who have had close contact, as defined by the CDC, with someone who is (1) confirmed to have the virus, or (2) is being evaluated for infection, are directed to monitor their health for 14 days and watch for symptoms, including fever, coughing, shortness of breath or difficult breathing, and other early symptoms (such as chills, body aces, sore throat, headache, diarrhea, nausea/vomiting, and runny nose). The CDC notes that fever will not necessarily be present for all infected individuals.
In addition, employees should:
- Frequently wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoid touching their eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Until more is known about how the coronavirus spreads, the CDC and OSHA recommend using a combination of standard, contact, 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.
- Follow all the CDC interim infection control recommendations, as well as,
- The World Health Organization (WHO) interim guidance on infection prevention and control during health care when nCoV infection is suspected
Clinical laboratory workers
- The CDC has released interim laboratory biosafety guidelines for handling specimens associated with 2019-nCoV infection
Waste management workers
- Workers and employers should manage waste contaminated with 2019-nCoV as they would other regulated medical waste. (The 2019-nCoV is not a Category A infectious substance.)
- Use appropriate engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE, such as puncture-resistant gloves and face/eye protection, to prevent worker exposure to medical waste, including sharps and other items that can cause injuries or exposures to infectious materials.
- Consult the regulated medical waste information in CDC’s guidelines for environmental infection control in healthcare facilities, as well as,
- The CDC’s interim infection prevention and control recommendations for hospitalized patients with MERS, and,
- OSHA’s general MERS infection prevention and control recommendations.
U.S. business travelers
- Consult the CDC Travel Notice: Novel Coronavirus in China
The number of new coronavirus cases is small, and employers should not overreact to any threat it poses. Many employers can likely continue to operate largely as normal; those with significant employee travel or employee interchange in Asia should continue to take steps that are appropriate considering all circumstances and updates issued by the State Department and the WHO.