As the death toll in China rises to over 100 people from a new coronavirus (currently designated 2019-nCoV) first diagnosed in Wuhan, China, there are steps U.S. employers can take to minimize risks of transmission for potentially exposed employees and assuage coronavirus-related fears among their workers.
Already, multiple diagnosed cases (though not deaths) have been reported in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the new coronavirus is an aerosol transmissible disease (ATD), meaning it can spread to others through the air either by coughing, sneezing, or close personal contact. The CDC explains that symptoms are similar to seasonal flu and other coronaviruses and can include:
The CDC believes at this time that symptoms of 2019-nCoV may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure. There are also reports that it may be transmissible from individuals before their symptoms appear.
Nonetheless, the CDC and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have expressed that, currently, there is no evidence of ongoing transmission of this new coronavirus in the United States. In the United States, people are usually infected with more common human coronaviruses in the fall and winter, and most people will recover on their own.
As a measure of caution, however, employers may want to implement a written communicable illness policy that covers any potential illness communicable in the workplace—and include 2019-nCoV if the employer has employees who may reasonably be expected to be exposed to this new coronavirus. Although not expressly required by federal or California state OSHA regulations, employers (and employees) may find such a policy to be very helpful. A good communicable illness policy should include employee illness reporting obligations, methods employees can use to minimize their exposure and their family members’ exposure to communicable illnesses, reference to employer sick leave policies, procedures for travel restrictions and instructions during an outbreak, rules for when employees should not report to work and when they must not report to work, and the employer’s communication plan in the event of an outbreak. Separate attachments can be used to address outbreak-specific information.
The following federal and California state OSHA standards can also potentially come into play in situations where an aerosol transmissible disease is present:
With specific regard to 2019-nCoV, employers can take various steps to help mitigate potential exposure risks and to calm fears related to the disease. They include the following:
Due to the complicated nature of these issues and fluid situation, as well as the potential OSHA and employment laws and regulations implicated, employers should consult with legal counsel. For example, the outbreak may implicate other laws that prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities or medical conditions, obligations under workers’ compensation laws, and collective bargaining obligations.
The foregoing has been prepared for the general information of clients and friends of the firm. It is not meant to provide legal advice with respect to any specific matter and should not be acted upon without professional counsel. If you have any questions or require any further information regarding these or other related matters, please contact your regular Nixon Peabody LLP representative. This material may be considered advertising under certain rules of professional conduct.
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