There are different types of businesses that are in operation during the COVID-19 pandemic in Southern California as well as elsewhere in the state and across the country. These enterprises remain open even when stay at home and similar types of orders and initiatives are in place. Generally speaking, these businesses have been classified as being “essential” and need to remain in operation to ensure the overall welfare of the community at large. As a consequence, there is a cadre of dedicated individuals truly on the frontline during this very real healthcare crisis. Employers of these workers have a legal and ethical responsibility to keep their employee teams as safe as reasonably possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

COVID-19 Worker Risk Classification Levels

Before diving into strategies business owners and other types of employers need to consider implementing to protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, an understanding of worker risk classifications is necessary. An occupational risk pyramid has been developed for use in classifying employees and their level of risk during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Very high risk
  • High risk
  • Medium risk
  • Lower risk

Employees at Very High Risk

Employees in the very high-risk category include:

  • Healthcare workers (nurses, doctors, EMTs, paramedics, dentists, etc.)
  • Healthcare and laboratory personnel involved in collecting and analyzing samples from patients thought to have COVID-19
  • Morgue workers and funeral home staff members involved in embalming deceased individuals thought to have COVID-19

Employees at High Risk

Workers classified in the high-risk category include:

  • Healthcare support staff
  • Medical transport workers
  • Other mortuary workers

Employees at Medium Risk

Employees classified as being at medium risk represent a fairly wide swath of workers. These are individuals that are required to have close contact with people during the normal course of their employment. Close contact is defined as within six feet of other people. In addition, this classification involves close contact with individuals that may be infected with COVID-19 but who have not received a specific diagnosis of such an infection.

Employees at Lower Risk

Finally, there is a cohort of workers that are placed in the lower risk category. At this time, there is no such thing as a no-risk situation involving workers that must have some sort of contact with the public during the course of their employment. Low-risk employees are people that have minimal contact with fellow co-workers. They are not required to have contact with individuals known to have a COVID-19 infection. In addition, they are not required to have contact within six feet of members of the general public. 

Specific Strategies to Protect Workers in Different Risk Categories. 

Employees at Very High Risk

As noted above, most employees in the very high-risk category are in the healthcare and mortuary professions. If an employee is ill, they must stay home. If an employee becomes ill in the workplace, a facemask should be provided immediately (if that worker is not already using one). An attempt should be made to diagnosis the worker immediately and have the employee leave the workplace as necessary.

Policies need to be developed and implemented that are designed to reduce the overall risk of exposure to COVID-19. For example, in the absence of available single rooms in a hospital, COVID-19 patients should be placed in cohorts or grouped in shared rooms. 

If at all possible, offer enhanced medical monitoring to workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Provide all workers with job-specific education and training as it related to the COVID-19 virus.

Because of the inherently stressful nature of working in a very high-risk environment, employers should make psychological support services readily available to workers. 

Employees at High Risk

A number of protective measures need to be undertaken to protect employees in the high-risk category. These include ensuring that appropriate air handling systems are installed and operating appropriately. This particularly is the case in settings involving healthcare workers and patients.

On a related note, patients with confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19 should be placed in an airborne infection isolation room whenever possible. In addition, a patient should be placed in an isolation room when some type of aerosol-generating procedure is performed.

Employees at Medium Risk

Employees at medium risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus should be provided with some additional physical protections because of the proximity in which they come to members of the general public. These include the installation of physical barriers like clear plastic sneeze and cough guards. Such an addition is recommended in situations like those involving grocery store cash register workers and the general public. In addition, the provision of facemasks is also a suggestion in situations in which an employee might have a mild illness of some sort but nonetheless needs to be on duty for some reason. With that said, as a general practice, sick workers should stay home. 

Employees at Lower Risk

Employers with employees in the lower risk category typically do not need to take any additional steps to protect the health and welfare of their workers beyond initiating COVID-19 cleaning and disinfection as discussed in a moment. With that said, employers and workers alike should monitor public health communications from the city, county, state, and federal government. In addition, it is wise to regularly check the CDC COVID-19 website for up to date information about the virus. 

COVID-19 Cleaning and Disinfection Services

No matter the risk classification of employees working within a particular business, serious consideration should be given to proactive strategies designed to eradicate COVID-19 from the workplace via professional coronavirus cleaning and disinfection services. Of course, hospitals and medical centers already have protocols in place for infectious disease cleaning and disinfection. The same cannot yet be said about other businesses in which workers come into contact with members of the general public and even fellow co-workers.

Each and every day, media reports highlight outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus in workplaces of different types. While addressing the individual needs of specific employees in these types of situations is vital, taking a more global approach to clean and disinfect to enhance the overall safety of the workplace is also crucial.