As the coronavirus, or COVID-19, continues to spread and companies have closed their facilities, employees have been forced to work remotely and limitations have been put in place for business hours and services.
More businesses risk suffering financially from the outbreak, but another risk is that of exposing employees to the infection.
When Businesses Are Responsible for COVID-19 Infections
A growing number of employees are wondering if their company can be held liable if they contract the coronavirus. Considering a pandemic of this scale hasn’t previously affected the U.S., determining liability for illness among employees can be complicated.
The general duty clause in the Occupational Safety and Health Act states that employers must “furnish to each of his employees’ 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 to his employees.”
The Act doesn’t currently explicitly account for COVID-19, but employers may be liable if they put employees at risk of infection if they neglect to take the proper steps to protect the workplace and prevent exposure to the virus.
In workplaces where employees could possibly encounter any type of blood-borne pathogen, safety laws for federal workplaces also require employers to immediately provide a confidential medical evaluation to any exposed employees and to follow up with the results.
The Need for Clear Communication
It’s important for employers to communicate best practices to all of their employees and ensure that all rules in place pertaining to health and safety are clearly understood.
Businesses may be able to minimize the risk of liability if they adhere to the guidance that both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have in place. Businesses should also follow all guidelines according to state and local county rules and regulations.
If employers fail to provide a safe work environment for employees, which may include forcing workers to visit a facility in violation of stay-at-home orders or if remote work is a possibility, employees may contract COVID-19 out of negligence. However, it can be difficult to prove where the employee first contracted the virus considering its scope.
If an employee is exposed to and is infected with COVID-19 in the workplace, and he or she can prove that the employer’s negligent practices resulted in exposure to the virus, the employer may be liable for putting the employee’s health at risk.