The rapid spread of the coronavirus across the U.S. and many parts of the globe has drawn quite a bit of attention to employee safety. As business leaders look over their employee policies and procedures, they may begin to wonder about legal risks that a pandemic may expose them to. Medical offices are no exception. OSHA requires every employer to have policies and procedures to address the pandemic spread of viral illnesses such as the flu or coronavirus. A review of your policies and response plans now is essential.
Nearly every country has laws in place to help make sure that workers are protected from physical harm at their places of work. In the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) to turn to for protection under the Department of Labor. If an employee becomes sick because their employer failed to follow safety guidelines, the employer may be subject to legal penalties.
As an employer, paying attention to employee safety and compliance will help keep your team safe and minimize risk in your medical office. Start by ensuring your office is following these five steps described below to stay safe during the COVID-19, aka coronavirus, epidemic.
- Appoint a leader to stay well-informed
Assign a lead safety officer whose responsibilities include seeking out reliable information on public health and keeping up with all official requirements and recommendations by local, state, and national authorities. This person must stay informed about public health updates related to the coronavirus outbreak from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). OSHA has published a comprehensive Guidance for Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19.
To safeguard against legal action, medical offices need to be able to prove that employee policies have stayed in close alignment with recommendations by the authorities.
- Communicate with your employees, and pay attention to hygiene
Medical offices need to be able to demonstrate that they've taken every effort to provide employees with good information about how to prevent the spread of the infection, and also given them the ability to act on the information provided. Organizations need to educate employees about how the coronavirus spreads and about the symptoms of infection. They need to educate their employees on public health guidelines and tell them where further official information is available.
Employers also need to put in place measures that help employees follow guidelines to lower the risk of infection in the workplace. For instance, they need to be provided with handwashing facilities or hand sanitizers, and employers need to make sure to have doorknobs, water coolers, and elevators disinfected. Better yet, offer remote work and shift work where possible.
Workers need to be told about the kind of COVID-19 infection symptoms they should watch out for. If they have a medical vulnerability to infection, or if there are members of their families with weakened immunity, those workers need to be provided with enhanced protection. Moreover, when staff members appear to suffer from symptoms, they should be asked to stay at home to not bring the infection to work.
Be sure to utilize multiple channels of communication to help ensure the message is communicated – email, social media, intranets, handouts, postings, etc.
- Put restrictions in place regarding employees return to work
Restrictions about who should work and who should stay at home must be based on fact, by applying official guidelines, and with the guidance of a medical professional. Restricting employees from returning to work based on their ethnicity or their country of origin could set you up for discrimination lawsuits. However, if an employee has recently traveled to an area where the virus is prevalent, CDC current recommendations are to avoid human contact. Make sure to carefully follow these guidelines that clearly state when potentially infected employees will be allowed to return to work. Document all communications with employees in this case.
- Review your leave and pay policies
Employers need to consider whether they are legally obligated to provide employees with days off if they come down with a COVID-19 infection. You need to carefully think about whether your current policies need adjustment in light of the epidemic. Refer to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Workers' Compensation Rules for your state. If there are exclusions relating to COVID-19 in the insurance policy that covers your workers, you should be aware of them. For instance, if your employees have travel insurance you should know that many of these policies exclude infections related to pandemics.
Employers should also consider whether they need to expand the protections and benefits provided, rethink income protection policies that they have for workers on leave, and adjust benefits for employees who run out of sick days.
It makes sense for employers to heir on the side of caution rather than simply doing the minimum necessary under the law. For instance, if an employee goes on a personal trip to a country where the coronavirus epidemic is widespread, having that employee return to work upon completion of the trip may put at risk everyone who's at work. You may need to offer the employee paid leave to stay on at home, even if you aren't legally required to. If you don't, and if infections occur at the company as a result, you could be exposed to lawsuits.
- Keep your employees' privacy in mind
Employers should be clear about the kinds of protections they need to have in place for employee health data that they hand over to the authorities for public health purposes, should the information be required. In most cases, even states with rigorous employee privacy rules do allow employers to disclose health data when the government requests it.
Finally, you need to make sure that your office has a plan for the worst-case scenario. If key decision-makers in your medical office should contract the infection, you should make sure that you have succession plans in place. Should the epidemic lead to a need to furlough or lay off employees, you need to follow all legal requirements. The law prescribes formal procedures for businesses to stay in compliance when they lay off certain numbers of employees.
Being a medical office manager can be a challenging position. Planning ahead for every kind of scenario can help your business stay clear of legal challenges as you deal with the direct consequences of the epidemic.
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