According to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, as of August 15, 2020, COVID-19 cases had reached more than 21 million across the globe, with more than 5 million in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says employers need to plan to decrease the spread of the coronavirus and mitigate the impact on their employees and in their workplaces.
COVID-19 is considered a workplace hazard that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says employers must address. Although the amount of risk that COVID-19 presents to workers varies by industry and occupation, even workers who don’t work directly with infectious people have similar exposure as the general public and they encounter common COVID hazards. CDC interim guidance for employers responding to COVID-19 identifies many common COVID-19 hazards in the workplace that facilitate transmission and/or create hardship issues.
Risk Exposure Levels
Although OSHA says most American workers probably have low to medium exposure risk, the agency has identified four risk exposure levels for workers.
Lower exposure risk (caution) includes those working from home, those working in an office or manufacturing environment with little to no close contact with co-workers, clients, or the public, and long-distance trucker drivers.
Medium exposure risk includes those who are frequently in contact with international travelers and those who work with the general public or high density work environments such as grocery, restaurant, and retail settings.
High exposure risk includes healthcare delivery and support staff, and medical transport and mortuary workers.
Very high exposure risk includes healthcare workers such as doctors, dentists, nurses, and emergency workers performing respiratory procedures, dental, and other invasive procedures on COVID-19 patients, those handling specimens from infected people, and morgue workers working with COVID-19 fatalities.
COVID-19 Hazards at Work
- High touch surfaces and practices (door handles, handrails, trash cans, keyboards, telephones, work tools and equipment, microwaves, refrigerators, desktops, counters, greeting with handshakes, hugs, and high-fives)
- Working or spending time in close proximity to many others (offices, training and conference rooms, elevators, restrooms, cafeterias, and breakrooms)
- Poor air circulation in enclosed areas, faulty exhaust fans in restrooms, and dirty heating and air conditioning filters
- Sick co-workers (those who have symptoms upon arrival to work and those who become sick while at work)
- Close proximity to customers, especially the general public
- Psychosocial hazards from prolonged social distancing, anxiety and stress about contracting the virus, impact of illness or death of a friend or loved one, major changes in work practices, distraction and fatigue, and financial and interpersonal hardships due to the pandemic
- Mold growth, rodents or pests, and stagnant water systems after prolonged facility shutdowns
Infection prevention measures for workplaces that OSHA recommends include respiratory etiquette including face masks and covering coughs and sneezes, hand washing and hand sanitizer, social distancing, limiting or eliminating sharing tools and equipment, limited worksite access to only essential workers, flexible worksites and work hours where possible, and cleaning and sanitizing of all high-touch surfaces. Implementing these safety practices minimizes and eliminates COVID hazards in the workplace to help control spread of the disease.