PPE Anxiety

What employers and businesses do to manage COVID-19 transmission risks, what makes employees (and consumers) feel safe, and what measures actually protect people’s health can be three drastically different things. So what really makes a safe workplace, and what are employees looking for when returning to work?

Though the coronavirus epidemic is still far from over, previously shuttered businesses are dusting off their counters and states are rolling ahead with their reopening plans; as Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcom once said in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way.” While employees and consumers may be wary of returning to work as well as their favorite restaurants, stores, or salons (which aside from being businesses, are still workplaces for their employees), employers of every variety are wondering what they can do to make their environment as safe as possible. However, what employers and businesses do to manage COVID-19 transmission risks, what makes employees and clients feel safe, and what measures actually protects people’s health can be three drastically different things. So what really makes a safe workplace, and what are employees looking for when returning to work?

Maintaining social distancing, especially via extended work from home measures, remains the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.[1] Wherever and whenever possible, this is the most reliable method to protect employees and possibly save lives. However, in situations where this is not feasible, in-person social distancing, mask wearing, and strict observation of CDC guidelines are the second-best option. While everyone should be wearing a face mask that covers both their mouth and nose and fits snugly to their face (no pulling it down under your nose!), not all masks are created equal. Medical-grade face coverings like N95 and KN95 masks are primarily reserved for doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers at the frontline of the pandemic, but even cloth face masks when fitted correctly and made out of several layers of appropriate fabric can help lower the likelihood of transmission. Providing clear rules and regulations, as well as training and informational resources such as CDC guidelines on how to select an effective mask (or alternatively, which types of face coverings are inadequate), appropriate wear, and how to thoroughly wash cloth masks can help ensure that employees are informed on necessary safety precautions. In many cases, employer-provided PPE is strictly required by OSHA and the state in which a business practices. Per OSHA guidelines, “with few exceptions, OSHA now requires employers to pay for personal protective equipment used to comply with OSHA standards . . . employers cannot require workers to provide their own PPE and the worker’s use of PPE they already own must be completely voluntary. Even when a worker provides his or her own PPE, the employer must ensure that the equipment is adequate to protect the worker from hazards at the workplace.”[2]

Even in the cases where it’s not mandatory, providing employees with masks and other PPE that adhere to OSHA and CDC safety guidelines ensures that they are sufficiently equipped to protect their health and the health of others when working in-person, while simultaneously minimizing legal liability. Making informational resources accessible also minimizes the possibility of misuse and therefore potential infection. For those in the service industries, while OSHA in itself does not require masks for restaurant and retail employees, some states like New York and Pennsylvania have stepped in to explicitly require them.[3]

On the other hand, unclear policies (or even worse, a complete lack thereof), can be a serious cause of concern for employees who know they may be risking their lives every time they come to work. Ultimately, communicating the point that employee health and safety is a critical concern while also backing that claim up with policies and procedures grounded in the latest science that meets local, state, and federal ordinances is the best way to not only make employees feel safe, but actually take measure to really protect employee health and safety. Enforcement is key, however, as the strictest policies are only as strong as the laxest adherent; even one slip-up can put both employee’s and the business’ well-being on the line.

There are, however, still many prevalent practices that are more performative than they are useful; for example, surface sanitation does little to help curb a virus primarily spread via person-to-person interactions. In fact, the CDC updated its guidelines in late May to reflect the fact that COVID-19 spreads primarily through person-to-person interaction, and that touching infected surfaces “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”[4] That’s not to say it’s completely useless, however; while it’s certainly important to keep clean, employers may simply want to note which policies offer statistically more effective solutions rather than spending resources on practices that can be time-consuming and costly with minimal real-world effects. As we continue to learn more about the coronavirus every day, staying updated on the latest requirements will help ensure employers remain compliant and keep their employees safe.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html

[2] https://www.osha.gov/dte/outreach/intro_osha/7_employee_ppe.pdf

[3] https://www.governor.pa.gov/covid-19/restaurant-industry-guidance

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/s0522-cdc-updates-covid-transmission.html

These articles are prepared for general purposes and are not intended to provide advice or encourage specific behavior. Before taking any action, Advisors and Plan Sponsors should consult with their compliance, finance and legal teams.

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