Keeping Workers Safe During The COVID-19 Pandemic

By Gary A. Jones, Director EHS Affairs

Protecting the health and safety of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak is essential to ensure the spread of the virus is stopped and it does not spread within the workplace. A single employee that becomes infected and reports to work can easily spread the virus to their coworkers before they realize they are sick due to the virus.

In order to address this issue, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued updated guidance for employers considering screening and testing protocols for employees and job applicants. The EEOC guidance explains what precautionary measures are now permissible under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including:

  • How much information may an employer request from an employee who calls in sick, in order to protect the rest of its workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

During a pandemic, ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the pandemic virus. For COVID-19, these include symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath or sore throat. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA. 

  • When may an ADA-covered employer take the body temperature of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Generally, measuring an employee’s body temperature is a medical examination. Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 and issued attendant precautions, employers may measure employees’ body temperature. However, employers should be aware that some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever.

  • Does the ADA allow employers to require employees to stay home if they have symptoms of COVID-19?

Yes. The CDC states that employees who become ill with symptoms of COVID-19 should leave the workplace. The ADA does not interfere with employers following this advice.

  • When employees return to work, does the ADA allow employers to require doctors’ notes certifying their fitness for duty?

Yes. Such inquiries are permitted under the ADA either because they would not be disability-related or, if the pandemic influenza were truly severe, they would be justified under the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries of employees. As a practical matter, however, doctors and other health care professionals may be too busy during and immediately after a pandemic outbreak to provide fitness-for-duty documentation. Therefore, new approaches may be necessary, such as reliance on local clinics to provide a form, a stamp or an email to certify that an individual does not have the pandemic virus. 

  • How May an Employer Adjust Their Hiring Practices in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The ADA generally prohibits all pre-offer medical inquiries and exams even during a pandemic. However, an employer may screen job applicants for symptoms of COVID-19 after making a conditional job offer. An employer may also take an applicant’s temperature as part of a post-offer, pre-employment medical exam. If a new hire has COVID-19 symptoms or is a diagnosed case, employers can delay the start date or rescind the job offer because they are a direct threat to the health or safety of the workplace.

Practical Implications

The practical implications of ensuring worker safety requires consideration of what actions a company is going to take in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company has a choice in that it can rely upon its employees to self-report if they start experiencing symptoms of infection such as fever, cough, difficulty breathing, and diarrhea. The other choice would be to start screening employees prior to them reporting to work. The screening can involve taking their temperature and asking them along with observations to see if they are experiencing any symptoms.

If such a program were to be implemented, a screening area should be set up to keep employees at least 6 feet apart while they are waiting to be screened. Hourly employees need to be allowed to clock in and get paid during the screening process. It is important to protect the person or people doing the screening. The screeners can be provided with a digital thermometer and need to be provided the proper personal protective equipment that includes gloves, mask, face shield, and gown or other protective clothing. This is because they could have the highest potential exposure.

If an employee has an elevated temperature which according to the CDC, is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher or exhibits the other symptoms, they should be sent home and told to contact their medical provider.

If an employee experiences any of the symptoms during the work day or calls in sick and reports that they are experiencing symptoms, they should be sent home, if at work, and held off on returning to work until they have passed a 14-day self-quarantine period without exhibiting symptoms. Another option would be to require a doctor’s release or a documented negative COVID-19 test.

If the employee tests positive for the virus, their coworkers need to be informed that they could have been exposed and they should also be sent home or prevented from returning to work until they have passed a 14-day self-quarantine period without exhibiting symptoms or have doctor’s release or a documented negative COVID-19 test. To maintain confidentiality, the name of the employee that has tested positive or is experiencing symptoms cannot be revealed to their coworkers.

In addition, the work area where the infected employee worked needs to be sanitized. This should include any surfaces they have touched or potentially coughed on. See SGIA’s sanitation guide for more info.

Summary and Conclusions

The most precious asset in any printing operation is its employees. In this unprecedented time, printing operations should remain diligent with protecting their workplace. Keeping a workforce safe benefits both the company and the employee’s coworkers and their families. Printing operations need to be diligent to ensure they are doing their part to keep the COVID-19 virus at bay.

Gary Jones
Director, Environmental, Health, and Safety Affairs Specialty Graphic Imaging Association
10015 Main St., Fairfax, VA 22031
703-359-1363 | gjones@sgia.org

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