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Sanitizing workplaces is considered a top safety protocol as more businesses open amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the practice can have unexpected costs and risks, workplace risk experts say.
Government advice on cleaning protocols is evolving and regular cleaning crews may not be equipped to deal with the challenge of sanitizing a site exposed to the coronavirus, they say.
Ninety percent of executives from mostly large companies surveyed recently said that they would be “increasing frequency and depth of cleaning and disinfecting worksites,” according to survey results released June 2 by San Francisco-based employment law firm Littler Mendelson P.C.
While taking employee temperatures or staggering work schedules are also among the top workplace precautions, maintaining a disinfected workplace “is the low-hanging fruit” of risk management protocols recommended to limit transmission of the coronavirus, said Chris Wilkinson, Washington-based partner and co-chair pay equity task force, employment law group at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP.
“This is one of the most important things you can do because there is very little you can do to always ensure that you are not going to get (virus) transmission by way of people talking to each other, or being close to each other,” provided it is done correctly, he said.
Frequently disinfecting workplaces also complies with U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements to provide safe workplaces, along with state regulations calling for enhanced safety in the pandemic, experts say.
“We have been telling employers to follow OSHA guidelines, but it changes almost daily,” said Hilary Weddell, San Jose, California-based partner at McManis Faulkner PC. “Employers should be monitoring OSHA frequently.”
One concern is with how to use recommended cleaning products. While both OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control provide employers with guidance on cleaning, including lists of acceptable and safe products, there are factors such as air quality and dangers involved in mixing that must be considered, Mr. Wilkinson said.
“Mix them and you have fumes,” he said. The CDC’s advice on using bleach, for example, recommends 1/3 cup of bleach per gallon of room-temperature water — a regular cleaning staff might not use the correct proportion, which poses a risk of respiratory issues.
“You have to be cognizant of what types of cleaning products are being used,” said Edward Diaz, Miami-based partner and chair of the labor, employment and benefits group at Holland & Knight LLP.
“I don’t encourage any science experiments,” said Lucy Li, an attorney in the Princeton, New Jersey, office of Fox Rothschild LLP. She advises her clients to use outside firms that specialize in sanitation. “Your general routine cleaning that your office was using before COVID-19 is not going to cut it; you need to have a more thought-out approach.”
“When this all started we were advising that people retain professional cleaning services and hazardous material companies,” said Melissa Peters, Bozeman, Montana-based special counsel with Littler Mendelson.
Ms. Li also encourages employers to clean when employees are away from worksites.
Experts say employers need to factor the cost of disinfecting workplaces into their budgets for the foreseeable future, but the cost depends, in part, on the size and type of space and the industry.
“It truly depends upon the type of cleaning being done,” Lance Ewing, executive vice president for global risk management and client services at Cotton Holdings Inc., said in an email. The Katy, Texas-based company provides commercial sanitation services.
“A nursing home is going to be different than an office building depending upon if COVID-19 has been confirmed, is presumed or the cleaning is more preventative,” he wrote. “The type of equipment being used, the number of personnel needed to clean, the square footage, if the building needs to be cleaned first then disinfected, as many facilities have been shuttered and the dust has to be removed before disinfecting can take place, are just some of the elements that go into pricing.”
The U.S. Justice Department, in announcing the prosecution of a man charged with faking a positive COVID-19 medical excuse letter last month, revealed that the costs to disinfect the employer’s worksite were upwards of $100,000. The department did not name the Fortune 500 employer, which it said closed for business so that crews could disinfect.
Cost and inconvenience are issues employers must consider when tackling the additional task of disinfecting worksites, said Deborah Roy, Falmouth, Maine-based president of SafeTech Consultants Inc. and president-elect of the American Society of Safety Professionals.
“You have to have a reasonable level (of cleaning) that you can maintain over time; this is not just a two-week activity,” she said. “This will need to go on for months, if not a year.”
“It’s all going to be case-specific and industry-specific,” Mr. Diaz, said, adding that a grocery store will require different measures than an office. “At a minimum, daily cleaning of high-traffic or high-touch areas, doorknobs, light switches, phones, keyboards. Many employers are deciding to do that initial deep cleaning with disinfectants, and then as you continue, you are looking at daily cleaning. … It’s a new world.”
More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here.