How to Support a Manufacturer’s COVID-19 Outbreak Response

manufacturing workers social distancing at work during covid 19

Manufacturing businesses remain critical during COVD-19. When the pandemic first began, plants across the country stepped up, rearranged their shop floors, and saved lives by transitioning their health and safety measures to include masks, sanitizer, and social distancing.

While manufacturers may continue to operate as essential sectors of the economy, continuing operations means outbreaks remain a risk for your clients. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is highly contagious and continues to be passed between people, even in cases where the carrier is asymptomatic.

Because COVID-19 is such a unique threat, some states consider it a potential work-related illness and thus claimable from workers’ compensation policies. Although the status of COVID-19 in its relationship to workers’ comp is constantly in flux, experts around the country suggest treating it as a potential work-related illness by default. 

You have a role to play in supporting your clients as they respond to potential COVID-19 outbreaks. Here’s what you can do to help.

Encourage Clients to Get in Touch Upon the First Case

Your clients know you’re there for them when things go wrong, but in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak, you want them to get in touch immediately – not when they have dozens of cases on their hands.

If you haven’t already, send your clients a note letting them know you’re here to provide any resources and will do your best to answer their questions. No one has all the answers right now, but you can still be an important ally.

Help Them Investigate Work-Relatedness

Although some states made COVID-19 a presumption, your clients still need to determine whether an outbreak is work-related. Unfortunately, when there are multiple cases within a plant, the case for work-relatedness becomes stronger. 

Because it’s still early, the guidance on how to do this isn’t well-defined. Generally, your manufacturing clients’ should treat COVID-19 as a presumed work-related disease, unless evidence becomes clear that it isn’t.

As of June 2020, an investigation must take place whenever there is evidence of work-relatedness. OSHA says it will examine whether your clients completed an investigation for each case, so it is highly recommended even if you believe all cases are connected after initial investigations.

Guidance is subject to change over time, but OSHA says failure to keep records of work-relatedness is a common COVID-19 citation. So if there’s any doubt, it’s better to investigate than ignore it.

What Does COVID-19 Work-relatedness Invesgitation Look Like?

During the course of an investigation, your clients can use the information provided by each employee or gained in the normal course of managing the business (e.g., through records reviews). Some of the questions that apply to COVID-19 include:

  • Does the employee know the date of exposure?
  • What date did the employee first experience symptoms?
  • What date did the employee first report symptoms?
  • What was the last shift the employee worked?
  • Has the employee had close contact with a confirmed case at work? Outside of work? 
  • How does the employee get to work?
  • Has the employee been to a restaurant, bar or club in the two weeks before experiencing symptoms?
  • Has the employee been to a large gathering the days before experiencing symptoms?

For example, your client may have a group of employees who interact at work, but not necessarily closely. It’s already been the case in one manufacturing plant that the outbreak was among those who attended the same church. In these cases, your client can issue a rebuttal and take the appropriate steps to protect further spread within the facility.

COVID-19 cases are more likely to be work-related when:

  • A cluster of employees test positive
  • Employees test positive after meaningful interactions with others who already tested positive

Cases are also more likely to be work-related when the employee has regular exposure to the public, but that role typically won’t apply in a manufacturing setting.

Investigative methodologies are largely up to your client, but you can help them by relaying policy information, changes in state law, and providing advice regarding what questions to ask and when.

In addition to OSHA requirements and guidance, individual state agencies, like Michigan Occuational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSH) and Cal/OSHA, now also have their own reporting and recordkeeping rules, so it’s important to check state requirements before declaring the results of an investigation.

Ask for the Right Evidence

For some plants, COVID-19 will be the first time they need to deal with a suspected workplace illness. When you couple inexperience with rules that change almost weekly, there’s bound to be confusion. You can support your manufacturing clients’ by providing them with a list of all the documentation needed to file a workers’ comp claim, should an employee request one.

Both the CDC and OSHA require documentation, and the lists provided by those organizations are a good place to start. OSHA’s January 2021 guidance update provides a helpful start. Here’s a list of the other documents you’ll want include:

  • COVID-19 assessment and control plans
  • Worksite assessment reports
  • Inspection schedules and reports
  • Maintenance schedules and reports
  • Contact tracing work product
  • Safety meeting schedules and minutes
  • Communications with all relevant public health authorities, officials, and professionals

Even if you’re new to handling COVID-19 claims, you should already have experience with workplace illness claims, so your guidance is valuable.

Share Resources to Prevent the Spread

Work-related or not, your clients have an obligation to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 on your clients’ shop floors. Each plant will have a different mode of doing this based on the number of employees they have, their job roles, and the space allocated to them. If they have questions, direct your clients to OSHA, the CDC, the Department of Labor, and state public health authorities for their legal requirements and the most up-to-date best practices.

Beyond the plans provided by health authorities, you should consider reminding your clients of the importance of their administrative practices in supporting or issuing rebuttals to workers’ comp claims. Revaluating the safety guidelines for better monitoring and enforcement as well as improving recordkeeping practices will help them both limit the spread of COVID-19 on the shop floor and better navigate insurance issues down the line.

These will also protect your clients from expensive citations. Over the summer, experts told employers across all sectors to expect a “tidal wave” of OSHA record-keeping violations and citations in the coming months. OSHA recently published a list of most common citations OSHA issued related to COVID-19.

Among these are violations of the General Duty Clause, which requires employees to “furnish a place of employment that was free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.”

To avoid these penalties, your clients should ensure at a minimum that they’re conducting a case-by-case investigation for every positive COVID-19 case and record any work-related cases in the OSHA 300 Log. 

Encourage Appropriate Response to Whistleblower Complaints

Over the past few months, whistleblowers have come forward to report allegedly unsafe working environments. Due to the contagious nature of COVID-19 and the precarious place of manufacturing facilities in the economy, a whistleblower complaint is never out of the question.

It’s in everyone’s best interests to respond to whistleblower complaints appropriately. Remind your clients that they should investigate, document, and prevent the spread of COVID-19 according to the rules passed down by the CDC, OSHA, and state health authorities regardless of a complaint.

You might find it helpful to share a leaflet reminding your clients of the appropriate ways to communicate with a whistleblower. Also consider sending them a copy of OSHA’s FactSheet on the Whistleblower Protection Program.

Help Your Clients Protect Their Communities

Manufacturing plants have been a significant part of COVID-19 relief. For so many, closing is not only not an option but could derail the national response. That’s why it’s so important for manufacturers to have the support needed to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak on their premises. 

You can help your clients by sharing resources on work-relatedness, helping them navigate the evidence produced, and recommend further resources for preventing the spread of COVID-19 both on the shop floor and in their communities.

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