COVID-19 and Workplace Implications

Questions and Answers from NIOSH

John Howard, MD
April 06, 2020

Employers across the country are facing an unprecedented challenge in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. There are many workplace implications with addressing the current pandemic, and I am proud to partner with the National Safety Council to do what we do best – inform employers and occupational safety and health professionals. Businesses and employers can prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19. It is important to have a plan to prepare themselves and their workers. Here are some common questions we receive from companies about COVID-19:

Q. If your place of business has discovered that an employee is positive for COVID-19, what steps should be taken before returning to operation? What type and extent of cleaning/disinfecting is required?

Employees who have symptoms (i.e., fever, cough or shortness of breath) should notify their supervisor and stay home. Employees who appear to have symptoms upon arrival at work or who become sick during the day should immediately be separated from other employees, customers and visitors and sent home.

If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19 infection, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Fellow employees should then self-monitor for symptoms. If a sick employee is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, follow the CDC cleaning and disinfection recommendations.

Q. What is an appropriate amount of time a person who has COVID-19 should stay out of work?

Employers should not require a positive COVID-19 test result or a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave or to return to work. Healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely manner.

A doctor will determine exact time as follow-up virus testing may be done.

Q. Most guidance for workplaces seem to focus on indoor environments. What guidance do you have for outdoor workplaces, like construction and others?

It is important for employers and workers to follow CDC guidance and practice physical distancing by avoiding large gatherings and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible. Outdoor workers may benefit from their work being located in a well-ventilated workplace (outside), versus indoor work environments where air is recirculated to some extent and physical distancing may be more difficult.

Q. Are wet utility workers (specifically those that work in sewers) at high risk with COVID-19? There are reports that fecal matter and blood are exposure paths/agents and sewer manholes are the travel path for that type of human waste.

Yes, there are reports from hospital studies that COVID-19 can be found around toilet bowls. These workers should take proper protective precautions that would be necessary when working around materials that may be contaminated by human waste. However, water itself has not been identified as a source.

Q. What is the body temperature reading that should raise concerns? If someone has a “low grade” fever should they stay home from work? What constitutes “low grade?”

Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Generally, 100 degrees F or less is low-grade.

Q. Our business has pregnant employees. Are there specific precautions we should take for these employees?

Per the CDC “Pregnancy and Breastfeeding guidance, pregnant women should do the same things as the general public to avoid infection. We do not currently know if pregnant women have a greater chance of getting sick from COVID-19 than the general public, nor whether they are more likely to have serious illness as a result.

Q. What guidance do you have for our employees who interact with members of the general public? For example, drivers, customer service reps.

It is important that employers establish policies and practices for physical distancing, maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) as much as possible between staff and customers, as well as utilizing handwashing and surface cleaning. If plastic or glass barriers can be placed between staff and customer that would help separate staff from customers.

Q. What guidance do you have about reusing N95 respirators?

CDC has published Interim Guidance on how to optimize N95 respirators on their website: “Strategies for Optimizing the Supply of N95 Respirators” and “Recommended Guidance for Extended Use and Limited Reuse

Q. Should we rotate breaks at work to limit it to only 10 workers on break at a time?

Yes. The fewer the better. This is an important practice employers can implement to promote physical distancing between employees.

Q. If you’re working from home, what precautions should you take to decrease chances for getting COVID-19?

Social distancing. Family members going and coming from home should wash hands upon reentry.

Q. What is the incubation period for COVID-19?

Between 2 and 14 days.

Q. Can a person have COVID-19 multiple times?

We don’t have a full understanding to know if individuals can be infected with COVID-19 after they have already been ill with the disease. However, it is currently believed to be unlikely.

Q. How long does the virus survive on surfaces and in the air?

The most recent science tells us that viable COVID-19 virus could be detected:

  • Up to 3 hours in aerosols
  • Up to 4 hours on copper
  • Up to 24 hours on cardboard
  • Up to 2-3 days on plastic
  • Up to 2-3 days on stainless steel

Q. How soon will a vaccine be available?

In as few as 12 or as many as 18 months.

Q. How can we help people understand the facts, including impacts on health, when there are different messages being delivered?

Listen to the public health experts and consult official sources such as WHO, CDC and local health authorities for information, guidance and tools in developing a response to COVID-19.

Webinar recordings with Dr. Howard presenting on Addressing COVID-19 and the Workplace are available for NSC members. General resources and information for businesses addressing COVID-19 is available at nsc.org/coronavirus and on the CDC website.

John Howard, MD

John Howard MD is director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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