COVID-19, a new form of coronavirus, continues to spread in the U.S. with confirmed cases and deaths in California. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides guidelines to employers to help prevent workplace exposures to COVID-19. First, make sure your employees know the symptoms of the virus and understand how it spreads.

Symptoms and spread

Symptoms of the virus can appear 2–14 days after exposure and include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. While COVID-19 has flu-like symptoms, it appears to have a higher mortality rate than seasonal flu, especially among older persons and those with chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease.

COVID-19 appears to spread person to person by close contact (within six feet) when infected people cough or sneeze. It may also be possible for a person to contract the virus by touching a contaminated surface—such as a door knob or elevator button—and then touching their face. There have been reports that patients can spread COVID-19 without having symptoms, but this is not likely the main way the virus spreads. COVID-19 is thought to be more contagious when the individual is displaying symptoms.

Keeping your workplace healthy

Prevention is the key to keeping your employees on the job. The CDC recommends employees with acute respiratory illness stay home from work until they are free of fever (100.0ºF or greater), signs of fever, or any other symptoms for at least 24 hours—without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants). Employees experiencing these conditions should notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick. Fever may be intermittent or may not be present in some patients, such as those who are elderly, immunosuppressed, or taking certain medications (e.g., NSAIDs).

The CDC also recommends that you:

  • Ensure your sick leave policies are flexible and that your employees are aware of them.
  • Consider allowing employees time off to care for family members who are sick.
  • Routinely clean all frequently-touched surfaces such as workstations, counters, handles, and work surfaces. The White House Coronavirus Task Force has issued tips on prevention, and the CDC provides additional guidance and planning for employers on their website.

Planning considerations

Employers should consider how best to decrease the spread and lower the impact of COVID-19 in their workplace. Some of the key considerations when making these decisions are:

  • Look at the severity of the virus in the community where the business is located.
  • Consider the impact of the illness on employees in your workforce that are vulnerable and may be at higher risk for COVID-19 health complications, such as older adults and those with chronic medical conditions.
  • Prepare for possible increased numbers of employee absences due to illness in employees and their family members, school closures, etc.
  • Assess your essential functions and how you will be able to continue them in the event that many of your employees are not able to come to work.
  • Know how you will respond in the event of an outbreak by creating an Infectious Disease Outbreak Response Plan.

Employees have a role in prevention, too

A vaccine to prevent COVID-19 infection is in development but is not currently available, so be sure your employees know about these preventative measures recommended by the CDC:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use alcohol-based sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Get a flu vaccine and take flu antivirals if prescribed.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • If you are infected with COVID-19 follow CDC’s guidelines.

Other helpful resources are OSHA Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, NIOSH Guidance on Coronavirus in Workplaces, and the World Health Organization, Coronavirus.

The above evaluations and/or recommendations are for general guidance only and should not be relied upon for medical advice or legal compliance purposes. They are based solely on the information provided to us and relate only to those conditions specifically discussed. We do not make any warranty, expressed or implied, that your workplace is safe or healthful or that it complies with all laws, regulations or standards.