When Working at Home Is Impossible

Public health experts have been recommending that companies encourage employees to work from home to prevent the potentially deadly coronavirus from spreading around offices, on public transit and elsewhere. But sometimes remote work isn’t possible: Millions of Americans need to be physically present to do their work.

The remote-work gap is just one way the coronavirus outbreak is underscoring inequalities inherent in the American economy. People in must-show kinds of fields don’t have the luxury of staying home. Department of Labor data shows that 29% of workers don’t have the option to work remotely — and many have frontline exposure to the virus because their jobs put them in front of people.

Airport workers, bus drivers, homeless shelter volunteers, supermarket checkers, delivery drivers, medical professionals — there’s a long list of jobs that can’t fit into a telecommute system. They have to take extra precautions that work-at-home employees don’t have to deal with.

What’s the Word From OSHA?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has published Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, which contains advice to a range of businesses that must remain open. Unless your business is now 100% remote, the guidance is essential reading.

It divides workers into categories:

  • Very high exposure risk, such as medical personnel performing certain high-risk procedures on COVID-19 patients.
  • High exposure risk, such as other medical personnel also working with COVID-19 patients.
  • Medium exposure risk, such as high-volume retail workers and others in high-population-density environments.
  • Lower exposure risk, such as those who have little or no contact with the general public or co-workers.

The guide has more details on which occupations fall into each category.

Those in the high or very high category require certain specialized environments to protect patients and workers. Personal protection equipment, based on the exact job and situation, should include alcohol-based hand rubs, gloves, a gown, a face shield or goggles, and either a face mask or a respirator.

Businesses whose employees fall into the medium-risk category should keep customers informed about symptoms of COVID-19 and ask sick customers to minimize contact with workers. The business should work to limit customers’ and the public’s access to the work site or restrict access to only certain workplace areas.

If telework is not possible, the business should consider strategies to minimize face-to-face contact (e.g., drive-thru windows, phone-based communications). Workers with medium-risk exposure risk may need to wear some combination of gloves, a gown, a face mask, and/or a face shield or goggles.

This is just a summary. Consult the full guide, as well as other authoritative sources, for a full range of protective measures.