The Law @ Work

CDC Issues Re-Opening Guidance for Employers in Light of COVID-19

By Amelia J. Holstrom

Although we don’t yet have the final word on which Massachusetts businesses will be able to open on May 18, 2020, it’s time for you to start planning re-entry.  Last week, we blogged about what employers need to be aware of when employees begin to return to work, whenever that may be.  You can find those blogs here and here.  When it comes to preparing your physical workplace for your employees’ return, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued re-opening guidance.  The guidance requires businesses to make a cleaning plan and follow it.  Here are the highlights.

What and How to Clean

According to the CDC guidance, employers must evaluate the surfaces in the workplace and determine which need to be disinfected.  To do this, employers should walk through a typical day and identify areas shared, frequently and occasionally-touched items, and other surfaces where germs could be lingering.  Items that are frequently touched, including but not limited to, tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards and keypads, toilets, faucets, and sinks, must be cleaned with soap and water and then disinfected with an EPA approved disinfectant.  Alternatively, if an EPA-approved disinfectant is not available, an employer can substitute 1/3 of a cup of bleach added to 1 gallon of water or a 70% alcohol solution.  While this should be done at least daily, it must be done more frequently on items with use by multiple persons (i.e. keypads and ATMs).  There’s an exception:  Items used by children should be cleaned with only soap and water rather than disinfectants.  The same is true for surfaces that are not frequently touched—soap and water can be used to get the job done.  The CDC also recommends removing items that can be removed, such as area rugs and other similar items. 

Safe Cleaning

Employers need to start planning now to ensure they have enough and appropriate PPE and disinfectant available before the cleaning is to begin.  Not everyone can handle the cleaning.  In some circumstances where certain chemicals are used, someone with specialized training and equipment is required.  In all cases, cleaning should be done in well-ventilated areas and by individuals wearing appropriate PPE.  For example, gloves appropriate for the chemicals being used must be worn rather than inexpensive, throwaway gloves you may see people wearing at the grocery store.  For more information, employers should consult the OSHA guidance for specific PPE requirements before beginning the cleaning process.  

CDC Provides Additional, Industry-Specific Information

The guidance also has a number of helpful questions and tools to help employers decide what to clean, how to do it, and how frequently it must be done.  There are also links to industry-specific guidelines within the guidance as well.  

Legal Risks Associated With Non-Compliance

This is serious business.  As employers re-open they need to be certain to follow this and other important guidance and keep apprised of any updates.  This may be challenging because cleaning supplies are not easy to come by these days, and employers may need to make their own.  Do not take shortcuts:  Failing to comply is both dangerous and risky from a legal perspective.  As we wrote in our blog last week, lawsuits have already begun.  The family of an employee who contracted and died of COVID-19 is suing the employee’s employer for wrongful death and negligence.  Additionally, if an employee believes an employer’s cleaning practice, or lack of one, violates safety standards, an employee may file an internal complaint or an external complaint with OSHA.

Employers will have many more issues to consider before returning employees to brick and mortar workplaces.  Unfortunately, we do not yet know what those will be.  Fortunately, we’ve received some guidance on cleaning.  Employers should take advantage of this early information and start planning how to disinfect their workplaces so that they will have one less thing to consider when guidance or orders about additional topics are issued. 

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