Do Employers Have an Obligation to Protect Employees from COVID-19?
While many businesses remain closed due to the government-mandated stay-at-home order, essential businesses continue their operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. But do employers have any duties to protect their employees from the coronavirus disease?
Do employers have an obligation to keep their workers safe from COVID-19 or to reduce the spread of the virus?
Workplace Safety in the COVID-19 Era
The Occupational Safety and Health Act is the primary law that governs workplace safety. In particular, the OSHA requires employers to provide a workplace free from “recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” to their employees.
The provision of the employment law sounds reasonable, but what does it mean in the context of the coronavirus disease?
In April, the OSHA published a “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19” to explain what employers can do to protect their employees from the coronavirus disease in the workplace.
Employees’ Risk of COVID-19 Exposure at Work
The guidelines provide a classification of worker risk to determine workers’ possible exposure to COVID-19 at work. The OSHA recognizes four levels of risk:
- Lower risk. An employee is not required to be in contact with individuals who are potentially infected with coronavirus as part of their duties or is not frequently in close contact with people in general.
- Medium. An employee is likely to come into close contact with those who might have COVID-19 (e.g., a retail worker).
- High. An employee is more likely to come into contact with those who could potentially be infected with coronavirus, though the infected person is unlikely to spread the virus (e.g., a doctor who is present in a coronavirus patient’s room).
- Very high. An employee is very likely to come into close contact with individuals with known or suspected COVID-19. These workers have the highest risk of exposure to coronavirus (e.g., a doctor treating a coronavirus patient).
How Do Employers Need to Protect Employees from COVID-19 Risks?
The majority of workers fall into the lower or medium risk categories outlined above. The OSHA guidance says that for most lower-risk workers, employers are not required to ensure any special protections or provide protective equipment, though there may be exceptions.
For medium-risk employees, employers may need to:
- install engineering controls (sneeze and cough guards);
- offer face masks to sick employees;
- limit the public’s access to the worksite;
- minimize face-to-face contact among employees; and
- provide basic protective equipment such as goggles, gowns, and face masks.
Note: If an employee has reason to believe that their employer exposed them to COVID-19 risks in violation of the OSHA, he or she can file a complaint with the agency.
For most employers, the OSHA does not impose any additional requirements for protecting their employees from coronavirus-related risks. However, with state and federal laws constantly changing during these unprecedented times, it is advised to talk to a West Palm Beach employment law attorney to identify your potential obligation to protect employees from COVID-19.
Contact Pike & Lustig, LLP, to discuss your obligations as an employer to protect workers from coronavirus at work. Call at 561-291-8298 for a consultation.