Steps employers and companies must take if an employee tests positive for coronavirus
The coronavirus pandemic changed the workplace for virtually all U.S. workers. Similar to states across the country, Georgia imposed shelter-in-place orders at one point, forcing non-essential businesses to conduct all business remotely or to close temporarily.
In addition to changing the way workers perform their job duties, COVID-19 also poses a workplace hazard that can affect multiple workers at one time if not properly contained. Georgia has set forth certain procedures for businesses to follow in the event that an employee tests positive for COVID-19.
What should employers do if a worker tests positive for the coronavirus?
If an employer becomes aware that one of their workers tests positive for COVID-19, the employer should immediately close off all areas within which the infected worker may have come into contact. If possible, at least 24 hours should pass prior to cleaning and disinfecting the workplace. Allowing 24 hours to pass will allow respiratory droplets to settle and reduce the risk of exposure to infected airborne droplets. Opening outside windows and doors will increase air circulation and further reduce the risk of others.
To stop the spread of COVID-19, the Georgia Department of Health has implemented Georgia Healthy Collaborative, a contact tracing program. Although reporting an infected employee is not mandatory, reporting the case to the Department of Health will facilitate the health agency in notifying and recommending testing, monitoring and quarantine to others who may have come in contact with the infected person.
Beyond cleaning and disinfecting the workplace, employers should identify other employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and recommend testing and, if necessary, quarantine and medical treatment.
Is it necessary to shut down if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?
Georgia’s Health Department doesn’t automatically require employers to shut down after a coworker tests positive for COVID-19. However, business owners should close the areas the infected employee used within 7 days prior to testing positive.
Areas the employee who tested positive recently used should remain closed for at least 24 hours, longer if feasible. Using a ventilation fan in each area will improve airflow. After thoroughly disinfecting, the employer may reopen the areas.
Can workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 return to the workplace?
Essential businesses carry out critical functions that keep communities running smoothly. If a critical infrastructure worker becomes exposed to COVID-19, the worker may continue working if they remain symptom-free and if the employer takes other precautions. Critical infrastructure businesses have an obligation to limit employees who have potentially become exposed to COVID-19 from interacting with other employees and the public.
To the extent possible, employers should reassign tasks that require interaction with others to employees who have had no exposure to COVID-19. Critical infrastructure employees who remain symptom-free and return to work should wear a mask at all times until 14 days have elapsed since the date of exposure.
COVID-19 has created new challenges in the workplace, forcing workers, employers and insurers to reconsider how they handle issues like safety protocols, workplace injuries and workers’ compensation benefits.
What if an employer later learns that an employee tested positive for COVID-19?
COVID-19 tests take time, and testing sites are sometimes limited in terms of availability and capacity. Therefore, an employer may later learn that one of their employees tested positive for COVID-19. The appropriate actions an employer should take depend on how much time has elapsed when they learned of the positive test.
If the exposure took place within less than 7 days, the employer should clean and disinfect the areas the sick employee used according to the CDC’s COVID-19 workplace guidelines. If the exposure took place 7 or more days prior to the employer becoming aware, it’s sufficient to only clean and disinfect all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace and to resume following the standard cleaning routine.
How can employers minimize the risk of workers contracting COVID-19?
One of the most reliable ways of minimizing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace is to allow employees to work virtually whenever possible. Teleworking software applications make it easier than ever for teams to meet virtually, share ideas and accomplish workplace goals collectively without leaving home. Employers that typically require employees to run errands or meet with people in other locations outside of the office should consider limiting non-essential travel to reduce the risk of exposure.
For employers who own businesses in which telecommuting is difficult or impossible, staggering work schedules and holding larger meetings virtually can prevent workers from crossing paths with each other and potentially spreading coronavirus germs. Work areas will likely need to be rearranged to allow employees to maintain at least 6 feet of space between each other.
Habits worth encouraging
There are certain habits employers can enforce to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Requiring employees to follow CDC safety and hygiene practices, including regular handwashing, wearing a mask or face covering when in close proximity to others and maintaining a minimum distance of 6 feet, can go far in containing the virus and keeping it out of the workplace.
Companies should also evaluate their absentee policies and make revisions if the company culture discourages people from staying home if they do not feel well.
Responding to a global virus pandemic requires flexibility and a willingness to stay informed and implement the latest health guidelines. When in doubt, employers should consult CDC reports and advisories issued by the Georgia Health Department and other health agencies.