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What employers should know to protect workers during COVID-19 crisis

Some of the 500 “clean bags” — bags filled with cleaning supplies for local refugees — that were donated by Greg Larsen, executive director of the Young Living Foundation, and John Renouard, founder of WHOlives, are pictured at the Utah Refugee Connection Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The coronavirus outbreak has forced many employers and the people who work for them to make major adjustments to how they operate. And while civic leaders devise plans to mitigate the unprecedented health crisis, local legal experts offer insights on the specifics of what employers must do to protect their employees and businesses during this time of change and uncertainty.

According to the law, employers do have an obligation to ensure their employees are safe. That means adhering to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration general duty clause, which applies to all employers and is an obligation to keep employees safe from known or obvious hazards.

With that standard in mind, there are a variety of steps that an employer should take and consider to maintain a safe work environment for their employees, said Ryan Nelson, president of Utah Employers Council.

“The first piece that an employer should be doing is looking at your workplace, looking at what happens, how it happens, where it happens, and by whom,” he said. “Identifying where, in this instance, the COVID-19 virus may cause or present a hazard for employees. and by extension, also guests or customers who may come onto your property.”

Once the risks have been identified and evaluated, the next step would be implementing controls to limit exposure and protect employees, he added.

“What we’re trying to do is first communicate with our employees about how the virus presents itself, and as best we know today, how it transmits (with) the goal being let’s reduce transmission among employees,” Nelson said. “So everything the state COVID task force is saying, everything the federal government through the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is communicating, employers should have their arms wrapped around that, they should understand it. And they should be disseminating that information into the workforce.”

He said organizations will sometimes have to become creative in their operational adjustments in order to maintain a satisfactory level of efficiency while providing a safe and productive workplace environment. He also noted that some changes implemented during the coronavirus outbreak may eventually continue on after the crisis is over.

“Looking at this situation, I can’t help but see an opportunity for businesses to have the latitude, the opportunity, and frankly, even the incentive to think differently and do what they do differently,” he said. “This situation will I think forever change how business is done in a variety of settings and for a variety of industries. Good things from a business perspective can come out of this as companies are forced to pivot and think differently about what they do and how they do it under changed environmental circumstances.”

Nelson noted that employers also have to be keenly aware of employees who may present symptoms that could potentially put others at risk. Once identified, those workers should be sent home with instructions to self-quarantine, then using telehealth, contact their health care provider and follow their instructions.

“Once the individual’s out of the workplace, it’s important that the employer begin to identify the risk that individuals may have posed to other coworkers (while maintaining privacy),” he said. “So inquiring with the employee that we’ve just sent home, ‘Who have you interacted with in the past 14 days? We want the names and then we’re reaching out to each of those individuals and informing them that (they have) potentially been exposed to the virus.’”

Meanwhile, another Utah legal expert advises employers to monitor the warnings and guidelines set by local civic and health leaders.

“One of the first things that employers would want to do is see whether the county or state health departments have issued any sort of a stay-in shelter order,” explained Mickell Jimenez, partner in the Salt Lake City office of law firm Holland & Hart, which specializes in labor and employment law. “If they have, they want to read that order carefully because it will determine if they can stay open and, if so, the parameters around what they can do.”

She added that employers should make sure to the extent possible that employees are not sharing personal work equipment any more than necessary.

“They’re not sharing computers, they’re not sharing (mobile devices) and other things like that they’re wiping them down frequently,” she said. “You want to make sure that your employees are washing their hands for at least 20 seconds often (and) that all surfaces that are being used in a place of employment are being disinfected and cleaned frequently.”

Employers should develop a punch list of protocols for employees to follow regularly to ensure the work environment remains clean and employees maintain appropriate social distancing measures while in the workplace.

“These kinds of health and sanitary measures probably aren’t gonna hurt — having a more healthy workplace,” Jimenez said. “It just would be a good way to behave.”

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Information Resources

CDC: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/guidance-business-response.html

OSHA: osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/controlprevention.html