Without fanfare on May 27, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance for employers of office workers (as well as updated guidance for restaurants and bars). This is the first guidance that is targeted at white collar workers, with the message that employers will need to “[c]hange the way people work.”
The CDC offers various categories of advice, which we summarize below, highlighting particular statements of interest:
Create a COVID-19 workplace health and safety plan. The CDC refers employers to its CDC Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers for guidelines and recommendations on creating a plan.
Before resuming operations, check the building to see if it’s ready for occupancy. The CDC recommends making sure the ventilation systems are operating properly and increasing the circulation of outdoor air as much as possible. In addition, employers should check for hazards such as mold growth, pest control, and stagnant water systems.
Identify where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work. Employers should conduct a hazard assessment, and identify areas where employees may come into close contact. They should also establish communication plans that include all employees, as well as contractors, as necessary to prevent transmission.
Engineering controls: Isolate workers from the hazard. The CDC recommends social distancing and infection prevention actions such as:
- Moving furniture and workstations
- Installing barriers
- Using markers to show where people should stand
- Improving ventilation by increasing airflow, filtration, and use of outside air
Of particular interest, the CDC also suggests that employers “replace high-touch communal items, such as coffee pots, water coolers, and bulk snacks, with alternatives such as pre-packaged, single-serving items.”
In addition, the CDC proposes that employers “consider using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) as a supplement to help inactivate the virus.”
Administrative controls: Change the way people work. While initially these measures were intended to be a short-term response to COVID-19, the CDC contemplates a sea change in the way offices function. Many of the strategies that have previously been proposed to and implemented by employers are included in this guidance.
- Those with symptoms or with sick family members should notify their supervisor and stay home. Enhanced cleaning and disinfection of their workspace should take place.
- Consider conducting daily symptom and temperature screening.
- Stagger shifts and break times. A new suggestion is to have employees and visitors phone from their cars to enable them to enter at staggered times.
- In accordance with CDC guidelines, clean and disinfect high touch surfaces, like work stations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, copiers/printers and doorknobs. Provide cleaning and disinfection materials, including wipes.
The CDC offers some intriguing (?!) new suggestions for social distancing, such as “[p]rohibit handshakes, hugs, and fist bumps” and “limit use and occupancy of elevators to maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet.”
And contrary to societal pressure to reduce pollution, the CDC suggests employers incentivize forms of transportation that minimize close contact, such as offering reimbursement for parking or single-occupancy rides.
Of interest, the CDC is taking a stronger position on the use of face coverings, stating that “Employees should wear a cloth face covering to cover their nose and mouth in all areas of the business” (emphasis added), in contrast to its Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019, in which employers were directed simply to “encourage” use of cloth face coverings. The CDC clarifies that “cloth face coverings are not considered personal protective equipment” as they prevent the employee from spreading infection but do not protect the employee from infection. (This is of relevance, as employers are responsible for providing and training on the use of PPE under OSHA regulations). Business should also consider asking visitors and guests to wear face coverings (as well as to not enter the building if sick and to stay 6 feet away from employees).
Educate employees and supervisors about steps they can take to protect themselves at work. Training on a variety of infection prevention, response, and mitigation topics should be easily understood, in the preferred language of non-English-speaking workers. Post signs on hand hygiene, COVID-19 symptoms, and respiratory etiquette, available from the CDC.
Take actions to maintain a healthy work environment for your employees and clients. The CDC again refers employers to its Interim Guidance for recommendation on creating sick leave policies, cleaning, and employee communication policies.
Additional Resources. The CDC provides links to additional resources, including other CDC guidance and OSHA publications, as well as the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Guidance for General Office Settings and the Building Owners & Managers Association International’s Getting Back to Work: Preparing Buildings for Re-Entry Amid COVID-19.