Safeguarding Employee Health While Returning to Work

Part of the Hand washing, social distancing & behavior Series

Employees planning a return to their workplaces face a series of obstacles thanks in part to failures by the federal government, three experts said recently during a panel discussion at Duke.

The July 9 panel was part of the Duke University Initiative for Science and Society's ongoing “Coronavirus Conversations” series. 

Here are excerpts:

Knowledge about viral transmission is lacking

Dr. Nicole Bouvier, a virologist at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, cautioned that some evidence is still lacking.

“There are a lot of things we don’t know about how this virus is transmitted,” or “how to best protect people from acquiring [it].”  She also cautions that most interventions, such as temperature screening and requiring negative COVID tests to return to work, are “risk mitigating, but not risk removing.” 

Workers must be involved in their own safety

In light of this, workers must be vigilant and involved in their own safety. Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, argued that, because industries and workplaces vary broadly, employees should be involved in decision-making about specific workplaces.  She advocated “ensuring that workers are sitting down with managers to rebuild the workplace and [craft] policies and procedures in place.” 

Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, added that “every workplace [should] have a safety monitor who can provide information and confidential advice to workers about their right to a safe workplace.” 

The federal government’s diminished role 

Both Martinez and Block are concerned about federal regulators’ failure to step up in this pandemic. “There are no OSHA regulations specific to coronavirus transmission,” Ms. Block says.  “In the past,” she said, OSHA has “looked at CDC guidance and said to employers, this is the best thing that we know … in short order about how to protect workers. So we're going to enforce CDC guidance.” But during this outbreak it hasn’t done that. Martinez agrees that “OSHA has been completely missing in action throughout the … pandemic.” 

In this vacuum, “We're seeing states start to step up and … come up with their own standards,” Block said, adding that without strong federal protection, workers in other states, can be left vulnerable.

Workers with underlying conditions face tough choices 

This is especially true for workers with underlying conditions.  “Iit’s hard to … find the balance between what [employers] can do for an individual to protect them,” Bouvier said. 

In other words, there will be some employees for whom being in the workplace will simply be too risky. 

Block noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act does require employers to give workers “reasonable accommodation” to allow them to do their jobs.

“But you have to be able to come to work” to access these protections, she cautioned. “There’s just no way around that there has to be a level of government support for people who can’t work safely.”