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How to Maintain a Safe Workplace When Reopening Your Business During COVID-19

Iowa isn't the only state rolling back or modifying restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak. As Iowan companies navigate these confusing times, it is important that employers follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) guidance for reducing the risk of workplace exposure for all employees.

The CDC recently issued Reopening Guidance on what employers should do as they prepare to reopen. The CDC also published FAQs for Businesses regarding COVID-19 and further guidance on when an employee who contracts COVID-19 should return to work.

Employers have a duty to provide a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. During this pandemic, that means employers must provide employees with a safe workplace by mitigating their risk of exposure to the virus. If an employer negligently exposes its employees to COVID-19, there is a possibility that the employer could be held liable in a court of law. Practicing effective cleaning, disinfecting, and social distancing tools can help protect employers from potential future liability.

The following tips are compiled from various CDC resources. Following the CDC's guidance will help insulate your company from liability related to COVID-19.


COVID-19 Disinfecting Tips

  • Coronaviruses on surfaces and objects naturally die within hours to days. Warmer temperatures and exposure to sunlight will reduce the time the virus survives on surfaces and objects.

  • Normal routine cleaning with soap and water removes germs and dirt from surfaces. It lowers the risk of spreading COVID-19.

  • Disinfectants kill germs on surfaces. By killing germs on a surface after cleaning, you can further lower the risk of spreading infection. EPA-approved disinfectants are an important part of reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19. If disinfectants on the list are not available, alternatives acn be used (for example, 1/3 cup bleach added to 1 gallon of water, or 70% alcohol solutions). Bleach solutions are effective for disinfection up to 24 hours.

  • Store and use disinfectants in a responsible and appropriate manner, following the instructions on the labels. Do not mix bleach or other cleaning and disinfecting products together - this can be very dangerous.

  • Do not overuse or stockpile disinfectants or other supplies. While that may be helpful to you, it results in shortages for others to use in critical situations. Buy what you need and no more.

  • Where gloves appropriate for the chemicals being used when you are cleaning and disinfecting.

  • Practice social distancing, wear facial coverings, and follow proper preventing hygiene, such as washing your hands frequently and using alcohol-based (at least 60% alcohol) hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.


Develop Your Plan

Before reopening, evaluate your workplace to determine what kinds of surfaces and materials make up that area. Most surfaces and objects will just need normal routine cleaning. Frequently touched surfaces like light switches and doorknobs will need to be cleaned and then disinfected to further reduce the risk of germs on surfaces and objects.

You should also consider what items can be moved or removed completely to reduce frequent handling or contact from multiple people. Soft and porous materials, such as area rugs and seating, may be removed or stored to reduce the challenges of cleaning and disinfecting them. Use the CDC's Reopening Decision Tool for additional reopening guidance for cleaning and disinfecting your workplace.

Have a written policy in place for your employees to follow at all times. Make it clear that you expect employees to follow the written policy and take steps to protect themselves from COVID-19, while you do everything you can to protect them and your clients as well. Consider changes to your company's practice like not holding in-person client meetings (if possible), doing as much work as possible remotely, and closing all shared spaces in your building to avoid close socialization between employees. Require face masks and the regular washing of hands or use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Consider putting some kind of reminder system in place for employees to wash their hands or change their masks. Remind employees that protecting the business from COVID-19 requires participation from everyone, and that one weak link could cause all sorts of problems in your business. If clients must come into your business physically and interact with employees, consider having those clients sign a written waiver of liability that forces them to acknowledge they are taking a deliberate risk by coming into your facility. Here is an example of such a waiver.


Next Steps

  • Determine what needs to be cleaned - surfaces and objects that are not frequently touched should be cleaned, but do not require additional disinfection. Disinfectants should not be applied on items used by children, especially items that children might put in their mouths.

  • If the area is outdoors, it will generally require normal routine cleaning and not disinfection. That said, the targeted use of disinfectants can be done effectively and safely on outdoor hard surfaces and objects frequently touched by multiple people. Some outdoor areas and facilities, such as bars and restaurants, may have additional requirement. Check out the FDA'S Food Safety and the Coronavirus Disease 2019. If your workplace or business has been unoccupied for 7 days or more, it will only need routine normal cleaning to reopen the area, because COVID-19 has not been shown to survive on surfaces longer than this time.

  • Take measures to ensure the safety of your building water system. You don't have to clean ventilation systems, other than routine maintenance, as part of reducing the risk of COVID-19. For healthcare facilities, additional guidance is provided on CDC's Guidelines for Environmental Infection Control in Healthcare Facilities.

  • Consider the resources and equipment needed - keep in mind the availability of cleaning and disinfection products and appropriate PPE. Always wear gloves appropriate for the chemicals being used for routine cleaning and disinfection.


Implement Your Plan

  • Clean visibly dirty surfaces with soap and water.

  • Use the appropriate cleaning or disinfectant product.

  • Always follow the directions on the label.

  • Maintain and revise your plan by taking steps to reduce your risk of exposure during daily activities. The CDC provides tips to reduce your exposure and risk of acquiring COVID-19. Continue to update your plan based on updated guidance and your current circumstances.

  • Continue routine cleaning and disinfecting.

  • Maintain safe behavioral practices, including: social distancing (staying six feet away from others in shared spaces), frequently washing hands or using alcohol-based (at least 60% alcohol) hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available, wearing cloth face coverings, avoiding touching eyes, nose, and mouth, staying home when sick, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.


Consider Practices that Reduce the Potential for Exposure

It is essential to change the ways we use public spaces to work, live, and play. To reduce your exposure to or the risk of spreading COVID-19 after reopening your business or facility, consider whether you need to touch certain surfaces or materials. Consider closing shared spaces, such as break rooms, conference rooms, etc. Consider wiping public surfaces before and after you touch them. Do as much telework as possible.

You can also make long-term changes to practices and procedures. This could include reducing the use of porous materials used for seating, leaving some doors open to reduce touching by multiple people, opening windows to improve ventilation, or removing objects in common areas like coffee creamer containers.


Have questions? We have answers.

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This Wandro & Associates Update is intended to inform firm clients and friends about legal developments, including recent decisions of various courts and administrative bodies. Nothing in this Practice Update should be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion, and readers should not act upon the information contained in this Update without seeking the advice of legal counsel.

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