In April, nearly 300 people attended a panel discussion Enterprise Health hosted via webinar with several leaders in the occupational health industry and an employment legal expert to discuss how their organizations were preparing to return employees to work. The panelists represented Fortune 100 organizations and health systems including Phillips 66, General Electric, Massachusetts General Hospital and Krieg DeVault.
Each panelist shared a few highlights of their return-to-work strategies and answered attendee questions. One predominant theme that emerged from the discussion is the need for occupational and employee health professionals who are managing the return-to-work process for their organizations to be flexible and make adjustments during the fluid situation. The panelists also made several other recommendations:
Set clear rules and standards
Dr. Peter Lee, who was global medical director for GE at the time of the webinar advised organizations to follow government directives from all levels and understand there will be differences. He shared an example as it relates to temperature screenings. In China, the definition of fever is 99.1 degrees, but in the U.S., the CDC has a definition of fever as 100.4, with a surveillance definition of 100. Even within the U.S., different locations use different parameters. In Ohio, the governor recently used 100.4, but in Dallas, the mayor used 99.6.
Dr. Lee explained that it’s important for an organization to decide what its definition of fever is but to allow for some flexibility to follow local regulatory guidance. He also reminded attendees that it’s important to be precise when setting and communicating rules. For temperature screenings, determine whether the rule is “equal to or greater than” or just “greater than” to reduce confusion about whether or not an employee can work if he or she has the exact temperature.
Alter workplace practices
Dr. Albert Rielly, medical director of occupational health at Massachusetts General Hospital pointed out that many common workplace practices must be stopped or modified as employees return to work, and he emphasized the importance of vigilant monitoring of workplace practices as a means of reducing the spread of the virus.
Dr. Rielly shared that Mass General has a strict policy that employees must wear masks at all times within the clinical facility, but when a cluster of employees became infected, the hospital discovered that some employees were still gathering in break rooms to eat lunch together. These infections had likely occurred when an asymptomatic employee removed his or her mask during one of these gatherings.
Tim Raycob, director for medical compliance and policy and Dr. William Parsons, chief medical officer, both of Phillips 66, presented how their company is using antibody testing to find out how many in their population have had COVID-19 and how many are still naïve. While Phillips 66’s testing program is completely voluntary, the company has had excellent cooperation from its employees. They are using the information to determine how to return employees to work in a phased approach over the next four weeks while protecting those who are still susceptible.
Amy Adolay, labor and employment attorney at Krieg DeVault said her firm is getting many questions from employers about their rights to monitor and test employees. She explained that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers can ask questions and can require medical examinations, but only if those are job-related and consistent with business necessity. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said employers can meet this standard where it’s necessary to exclude an employee who has a medical condition that would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of themselves or others. They have clarified that COVID-19 is one of those situations now that it is a pandemic.
Amy explained that employers are permitted to ask employees about symptoms and travel. They are also permitted to take temperatures, which is considered a medical examination under the ADA given that this is a pandemic. Furthermore, last week the EEOC said that employers can have mandatory testing requirements for COVID-19. Amy advised the webinar attendees to keep a watchful eye for additional guidance coming forth from the EEOC on antibody testing because more employers are moving in that direction.
Enforce the rules and standards
Finally, several panelists emphasized the importance of enforcing rules and standards. Compliance with rules that prohibit congregating in break rooms and common areas, require all employees to wear masks and closures of exercise facilities can reduce the spread of the virus, as well as reduce the risk for OSHA claims, worker’s comp claims and potential third-party liability claims.