OHS Canada Magazine

Safety a big concern as U.S. workers return to their jobs

Avatar photo

May 21, 2020
By The Associated Press

Health & Safety Human Resources COVID-19 Reopening United States Worker Safety

Variety of new workplace protocols are being implemented

As U.S. businesses reopen, the main challenge is keeping workers safe. (ehrlif/Adobe Stock)

By Mae Anderson

NEW YORK — With more businesses across the country easing back to life, the new challenge will be how to keep workers safe during the pandemic.

From temperature checks, contact tracing, social distancing and staggered schedules, a variety of new protocols are being implemented. The stakes are high since without a vaccine or treatment, an outbreak of the new coronavirus could be devastating for companies and workers alike, whether it’s in a meatpacking plant or an office.

“Businesses face existential threats all the time. They are built to make decisions that will determine the life or death of the company,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice-president of the staffing firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. “Choices that affect the life or death of their employees now need to be made for the first time. The stakes have never been higher.”

Brian Kuhn, a data analyst in Roxbury, N.J., worked in an office with about 50 people until mid-March, when they switched to remote work. His company has not asked him to come back to the office yet, but he says if they did, he would not feel comfortable, even with precautions in place.

“I don’t think any of that prevents someone coming in who is asymptomatic and spreading it,” he said. “It poses a risk to each of us that just is not necessary at all. … Prevention is the most important thing.”


Here are some questions and answers on what returning to work will look like:

How are companies monitoring employee health?

Companies are introducing a variety of new tools and techniques to monitor the health of their employees. The simplest method is temperature checks. A variety of companies make no-touch infrared forehead or camera temperature takers. U.S. automakers, for example, make employees fill out questionnaires daily to see if they have symptoms, take temperatures with no-touch thermometers before workers enter buildings, and require gloves, masks and face shields.

While this can be somewhat effective, plenty of people could have a temperature for reasons unrelated to coronavirus, such as another illness or even rigorous exercise. In addition, people with asymptomatic coronavirus might not have a temperature and still spread the disease.

“Checking temperature doesn’t necessarily correlate directly with COVID,” said Aiha Nguyen program director of Labour Futures at Data and Society, a New York-based institute that studies the cultural impact of technological change.

Employer-led contact tracing is another tool companies will use to reopen. Contact tracing is a method of identifying people who may have come into contact with someone who has the virus in an effort to suppress transmission.

Many companies are offering tech that purports to do contact tracing digitally using mobile phones or other devices. Some apps use Bluetooth or other signals to track people. Others analyze ambient signals around the device to create a digital footprint, then compare it to other phones to determine if they have been in close proximity. PriceWaterhouseCoopers is testing a contract tracing app that uses this method and plans to use it internally as well as offer it to clients.

A company’s human resource department can work backwards to notify people who have been in proximity with an infected employee. The data is usually anonymized. With some apps, data is sent to a remote server and others keep it on the phone.

Contact tracing can be done offline, with employees self-reporting at the end of each work day who they have been in contact with. Then if an employee tests positive the company can contact the people they were in contact with.

Social distancing can be a challenge but some employers are getting around that by staggering employee hours and limiting the number of people in the workplace. Google, for example, plans to reopen some offices beginning in June, keeping capacity at 10 to 15 per cent.

Is it legal for companies to track their employees’ health?

Regulations vary by state, but generally it is legal to require employees to download tracing apps, and in some cases, it could be argued that it is required, since under the Occupational Safety and Health Act employers must give workers “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

The American Disabilities Act prohibits employers from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations of employees, except under limited circumstances. The coronavirus is one exception because it has been deemed a “direct threat” under ADA guidelines by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, so employers have more leeway. That means they can test employees if it is job-related and consistent with business necessity.

Companies probably couldn’t test an employee isolating at home, but it becomes necessary when bringing people back to the office. They still have to comply with confidentiality rules laid out by the ADA, so temperature checks and other medical inquiries should be private. Health records should also be kept separate from employee personnel files.

What about employee privacy rights?

Because contract tracing involves collecting sensitive data about people, there are some privacy concerns. Health care providers cannot disclose patient medical information to other entities because of HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which was enacted in 1996 and regulates what health care companies can do with health care data. However, employers and contact tracing apps aren’t covered by HIPPA, said Michele Gilman, a privacy lawyer and fellow at Data and Society.

“One of the concerns here is that this will open the door to employers gathering massive amounts of health data on employees,” she said. “A lot of people believe health data is protected by the HIPPA statute. That law does not apply to employers. Employers have free reign over collection of this data and what they do with it.”

PwC and other app makers say they won’t collect information on users. PwC, for example, says no name or personal information is associated with the data and the data goes away in 45 days. But without federal regulation, employers are left to police themselves.

Are there any guidelines for reopening?

Companies must comply with each state’s guidelines for reopening, most of which include different requirements for screening, health checks and social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offers an online guidance for businesses and employers on how to reopen, including recommendations to minimize risk to employees. It has also posted six one-page “decision tool” documents that use traffic signs and other graphics to tell organizations what they should consider before reopening.


Stories continue below