by donna pryor

Shelter-in-place  strategies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has disrupted the U.S. workplace. However, unlike a typical office environment, mines cannot operate without employees on property. In order to prepare for the outbreak, every employer should spend some time assessing the risk to their workforce and confirming whether or not they have reason for concern about employee exposure. Those with elevated risks should take further action.

All employers should assess the hazards facing their workforce, evaluate the risk of exposure, and implement controls to minimize and contain exposure. The Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Department of Homeland Security and World Health Organization have released information for the public and employers to best protect individuals and workers from exposure to the coronavirus and on best practices to decrease transmission. Here are some initial steps you can take:

Educate and Communicate

As with any potential hazard, an informed and trained workforce will best be able to prevent injury and illness. This is especially true in the case of a virus that spreads through person-to-person contact. Help your employees understand what coronavirus is, how it spreads, what their risk levels are, and how to prevent transmission and exposure. Support employees as they need to make adjustments to travel schedules or work procedures in order to stay safe.

Post signage and circulate educational information to employees (available on the OSHA website), especially those individuals and locations at higher risk. Remind all of your workers to:

Avoid exposure to infected individuals. To be safe, avoid close contact with people who are sick.

Avoid travel to areas where the virus is spreading.

Wash hands frequently for 20 seconds using soap and water.

Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

Stay home when you are sick. Monitor for fever, cough and shortness of breath. Seek medical attention immediately if you may have been exposed.

Cover your cough or sneeze into a tissue then discard the tissue properly.

Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

At high-risk workplaces, follow all PPE and bloodborne pathogens rules.

Prepare and Plan

Beyond raising awareness, there are also specific steps employers can take to reduce the likelihood of workplace exposure and transmission. Consider the following:

Make hand sanitizers available to employees.

Perform routine cleaning and provide disposable wipes so employees can wipe down commonly used surfaces and work areas including steering wheels and other equipment if needed.

Encourage sick employees to stay at home.

Collaborate with your temp and contractor firms to do the same.

Require employees to notify you if they are infected or exposed.

Respect changes to and limits on travel. Follow U.S. government travel advisories due to the coronavirus. If possible, encourage video-conferencing and conference calls instead.

In case of a workplace exposure, determine which people and areas were exposed. Send affected employees to medical care or home. Take appropriate steps to decontaminate the environment. Follow OSHA standards on personal protective equipment.

Avoid discrimination. Apply policies consistently to all employees, and avoid implementation of policies that discriminate against individuals within a protected class.

Work with counsel when drafting a response plan to the virus. There are a number of federal, state and local laws that require serious consideration when creating policy that has the potential to have discriminatory impact. Some of those laws are the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII and the Family Medical Leave Act. Also, always consider employee privacy, employee privacy laws, and the ADA should any employees become infected by the virus. Employers should inform fellow employees of possible exposure, but should always maintain confidentiality.

The CDC has prepared recommendations for creating an infectious disease outbreak response plan: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/guidance-business-response.html. Those recommendations include a variety of policy reviews, reviews of essential business functions, and communications plans. To respond to employee concerns, companies should create designated teams as the point of contact for questions so responses are consistent.

Donna Pryor is a partner with Husch Blackwell. She can be reached at donna.pryor@huschblackwell.com.