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OSHA guidance on employee and workplace safety during coronavirus

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Washington state currently considers restaurants and hotels essential businesses, and that allows our industry to keep itself going even during the unusual circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak. Staying open and functional as a business is critical, but the health and welfare of your employees is, too. Make sure your workers are healthy and have a work environment that cares for their health and well-being. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a lengthy manual of guidelines for businesses, with specific guidelines tailored to businesses according to their risk of exposure to the coronavirus. They also provide a blanket guidance to employers. The top items are: 

Developing an infectious disease preparedness plan 

This plan should help guide protective actions against the coronavirus. OSHA recommends you stay abreast of guidance from federal, state, local, tribal and territorial health agencies and consider how to incorporate all their recommendations into workplace-specific plans. Plans should consider the level of risk associated with your worksite. Consider: 

  • Where and how workers might be exposed, including the general public, customers and coworkers. 
  • The age of your workforce and the condition of their health – individual risk factors could range from old age to pregnancy. Who is most at risk? How can their safety be guaranteed? 

Additionally, OSHA states that you should develop and factor in contingency plans to your preparedness strategy. Your plan should account for: 

  • Increased worker absenteeism 
  • A need for social distancing and exposure-reducing measures 
  • Skeleton crew functionality – can you cross-train workers in different jobs in order to continue operations with reduced staff? 
  • Interrupted supply chains or delivery delays. 

Based on OSHA’s definition of risk, restaurants and hotels would be either low- or medium-risk occupations, based upon the size and the frequency and volume of contact with the general public. A medium-risk workplace might be a particularly busy hotel, mall or other retail space. Some members, like Starbucks, have taken to placing physical plastic barriers on counters to promote social distancing between customers and employees. OSHA advises building these barriers at medium-risk worksites but does not consider them necessary in a low-risk environment.  

If you are operating only a drive-thru and delivery service right now, your risk is low. If you are still seeing a volume of physical traffic into your business or the area that contains your business, you may fall under the medium-risk label. 

Regardless of risk, all employers should adopt the following: 

Basic Infection Prevention Measures 

  • Promote frequent and thorough hand-washing, including providing workers, customers and visitors with a place to wash their hands. Even if soap or running water are not immediately available, provide alcohol-based hand rubs. OSHA advises these rubs should contain at least 60 percent alcohol. 
  • Encourage workers to stay home if they are sick. 
  • Encourage respiratory etiquette – never cough into your hand, but instead into the upper sleeve or a tissue, and dispose of it promptly Wash hands after coughing. Do not allow employees with a persistent cough work alongside others. 
  • Provide ample trash cans for tissues, available to customers and employees. 
  • Stagger shifts to increase physical distance among and between employees. Consider how to conduct operations in ways that keep unnecessary physical contact to a minimum. 
  • Discourage workers from sharing phones, desks, pens or other such tools. Kitchen tools should be restricted in this way – the fewer people touching any one piece of equipment,  the lower the chances of transmission.  
  • Maintain regular housekeeping practices, including routine cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, equipment and other elements of the worksite. Consider areas where many people may be touching the same thing – door handles, for example. OSHA advises that cleaning chemicals with an EPA-approved emerging viral pathogen claim are expected to be effective against this strain of virus. OSHA asks that you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products.  

Develop a flexible workplace 

  • Encourage sick employees to stay home. It’s worth repeating!
  • Ensure your sick leave policy is flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that your employees are aware of your policy. 
  • Talk with companies that provide your business with temporary or contract employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies. 
  • Do not require a doctor’s note for employees who are sick with respiratory illness to validate their illness or as a requirement to return to work. Healthcare providers will be extremely busy in this time and will likely not be able to provide such documentation in a timely way. 
  • Employees have family members who may fall ill – your policy should be flexible to permit them to stay home and care for those family members. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay home to care for sick children or family than is usual.  
  • Recognize that workers with sick family members may need to stay home to care for them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interim guidance for preventing the spread has more on this. 
  • Be aware of your workers’ concerns about pay, leave, safety, health and other issues that may arise during an outbreak. You should provide them adequate, usable and appropriate training, education and information, including instructing them in proper hygiene practices. Informed workers who feel safe at work are less likely to be unnecessarily absent.  

Safe Work Practices 

  • Provide resources and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene. Provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, disinfectants and disposable towels for workers to clean surfaces. 
  • Require regular hand-washing. Workers should always wash hands when they are visibly soiled.  
  • Post hand-washing signs in restrooms.