The New Consensus on Worker Safety

The New Consensus on Worker Safety
(AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
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As the weeks of quarantining have stretched into months, the slow rumblings of reopening the economy have recently turned into a roar. More than half the states have begun taking steps to reopen, or have plans to begin the process soon, meaning millions of people are likely to return to work soon. As the spread of COVID-19 has stabilized, employee anxiety about the return to work has spiked.

Many are able to avoid their workplaces entirely via telecommuting. As I’ve written elsewhere, the benefits of working from home are growing increasingly obvious as companies find it simultaneously protects employee health, improves productivity, and potentially reduces overhead costs. COVID-19 may be accelerating a workforce diffusion that was already underway before the pandemic.

In retail, manufacturing, hospitality and other sectors, telecommuting is a non-starter forcing employers to consider how to improve on-the-job hygiene and safety. The starting point for these moves is the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act requiring employers to provide a reasonably safe work environment that mitigates (not eliminates) all known risks. Over the past few months, unions, public health organizations, and government agencies have released both guidelines and, in the case of governments, mandates to improve and maximize protections for workers. Looking across these proposed policies, we are arriving at a rough consensus on the basic steps that should be taken.

First, since social distancing and good respiratory hygiene seem to be the best way to reduce spread of the virus, employers are being encouraged to reduce exposure through reconfigured workspaces, regular “deep cleaning”, and increased monitoring of employee health. Expanded use of on-the-job personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, and ongoing use of hand sanitizers are also part of the basic work health toolkit.  As we’ve heard endlessly in the past few months, hand washing remains a top mitigation strategy. Employees will also have to step up by regularly cleaning and disinfecting their own workstations, computer keyboards, and telephones.

So, what happens if an employee develops symptoms while at work? OSHA recommends that the individual be placed in a designated isolation room immediately while they await medical attention or transport. This room should have doors that close completely and are located away from high-traffic areas. Employers may also want to consider making these spaces into “negative pressure” rooms to prevent the escape of germs into the general office environment. In some instances, employers may also wish to establish regular in-house testing of employees to detect the asymptomatic COVID-19 cases. Prior to the pandemic such a measure would have been forbidden by employee protections put in place through the American Disabilities Act (ADA) unless it was deemed necessary for specific job requirements, but the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently made an exception for the current circumstances.

Changes to engineering controls within office buildings that help remove germs and increase fresh air flow are likely to become staples of building management. Office windows should be opened regularly where possible.

There is much that we do not yet understand about how COVID-19 transmits and the types of workspaces that are the most vulnerable to spread. Locations where large numbers of people are gathered in close quarters like prisons, nursing homes, and meat packing plants are notable “point sources” for spread within these institutions and in the communities that surround them. The most important and closely monitored office complex in the world, the White House, is now struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19 among those who work there. No place, it appears, is immune to the challenge.

We haven’t beaten COVID-19 or even fought it to a draw; we’ve simply arrived at a plateau with the virus continuing to spread at a high rate. The best that can be said is that extraordinary social distancing has prevented a catastrophic collapse of our health care system — no mean feat and worth the price. But we are a gregarious species that can tolerate such restrictions for only short periods. We’re going to have to learn to live with COVID-19 at least until an effective vaccine is available and that means paying close attention to public environments and especially our workplaces.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he conducts research on workforce development, criminal justice reform, and social theory.

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