Emergency Planning and Pandemic Response for your Employees and Customers

John Harp, CSP, ARM—Risk Engineering Consultant, MSIG Insurance Group

At this time, the COVID-19 pandemic should be winding down and we are hopefully getting closer to our previous way of life. With this event, the experts agree there will be a new normal when it comes to infection control, sanitation, and expectations of proper precautions from the places we visit and work.

In managing this epidemic or any emerging situation like natural disasters, shootings or future outbreaks, it reminds us that as business owners it is important to have an emergency plan and educate employees.

Workers’ Compensation And Osha Considerations

Question: If an employee contracted COVID-19 or other infectious disease, will they be covered by Workers’ Compensation?

The answer is complicated.

Although workers’ compensation statutes and case law can vary by state, compensability generally requires that an illness or disease be “occupational.” This means that the illness:

  • Arises out of and occurs in the course and scope of employment, which will normally come down to whether an employee was benefitting the employer when exposed.
  • Is proven to be the result of workplace exposure.
  • Is “peculiar” to the employee’s work, meaning that the disease is found exclusively among or presents a greater risk for certain employees. In the case of COVID-19, first responders and workers in the health care, transportation, and retail industries are among those with a higher likelihood of exposure.
    As COVID-19 spreads, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine whether an employee has contracted the illness in the workplace. Health care workers, for example, who are infected through contact with patients could expose not only their coworkers, but their families, neighbors, and strangers, too.
    Whether a specific case is compensable will be determined by the facts established during an investigation of the claim, as well as the governing law in the jurisdiction where the claim is reported. And because there is no single “test” that can prove whether an illness or disease is compensable, it may ultimately come down to a decision by a court or state workers’ compensation board. Let your insurance claims staff guide you!

Question: Are there OSHA requirements for pandemic response and emergency planning?

Yes, there are OSHA requirements that apply to c-stores. If you have 10 or fewer employees you are partially exempt from recording injury or illness events as OSHA excludes the flu or common cold from recordkeeping, but they have not excluded COVID-19 as yet and technically an employer is supposed to report to OSHA within 24 hours inpatient hos-pitalization for treatment or care if it’s deemed work-related. As with workers’ compensation, this is an evolving subject.

In summary, OSHA requires employers to furnish a workplace that is free of recognized hazards. Part of this entails developing and implementing an infectious disease and emergency preparedness response plan. 

Infection Control And Emergency Planning

There are many hazards or dangers that can result in a planned or unplanned store closure or disruption. It could be a hurricane, fire, earthquake, medical emergency, government order or pandemic. It is the responsibility of each owner to manage their risk by planning a response to protect employees and customers. As an essential business in any disaster, it’s important to have an emergency plan for business continuity and ensure employees understand their role.

Planning for health emergencies is unique, as the store has to plan and anticipate operating with fewer employees, a reduced supply chain and limited support from other services. (The FEMA website has information for pandemic and general pre-paredness plans: https://www.fema.gov/.)

Protect Your Customers 

  • Be knowledgeable through resources at your local and state governments, American Red Cross, and others.
  • In an unplanned event, two choices exist: evacuate or shelter-in-place. Customers cannot be forced to shelter but communicate your plan in a calm but firm manner. Let the authorities deter-mine the course of action.
  • A good notification source of relevant information from local public safety departments for your smartphone is https://www.nixle.com/.

Protect Your Employees

  • If the store is to close, communicate with employees that you will remain in contact to ensure they and their families are safe, and when a return to work will happen.
  • When it is safe to return to the store, be open with your employees to assure they are physically and mentally prepared to resume their routine.
  • Provide employees with hand cleaning and sanitizing product, and remind them of proper etiquette for coughs, sneezes and general contact with any customer item.
    If an employee is determined positive for infectious disease, contact your broker/agent, and the insurance company. And then check with Ecolab for the proper cleaning solutions or check the list of effective disinfectants at https://www. epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-dis-infectants-use-against-sars-cov-2.

Question: What are the most potentially contaminated surfaces in a c-store?

Cash, Cooler door handles, front door handles, credit card touch screens, coffee airpot handles, microwave, and almost any surface where customers and employees touch the same surface. At the same time, don’t overlook mop handles, the telephone, cash registers, scanners, chair armrests, and computer mouse.

The Future
What is being recommended for coronavirus pandemic prevention is what’s considered good hygiene at all times. These include things like frequent hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, avoid touching eyes, mouth and nose, and cleaning surfaces in the store and at home. This pandemic will end but seasonal flu, illness and the risk of another outbreak will exist, requiring continuing diligence.

There will be a new sensitivity to good hygiene and cleanliness in the fu-ture. This can be accomplished by:

  • Keeping a high level of general cleanliness of the store. Cleaning should be ABBI. (above, below, behind, inside). Ap-pearance matters!
  • Keeping front door glass free of excessive fingerprints.
  • Keeping stainless steel, sneeze guards and other common surfaces clean and disinfected.
  • Using the correct tools (cleaned) or gloves when handling any customer food items.
  • No product on the floor of the cooler.
  • Fresh and hot food means more danger of contamination. Make sure employees follow the guidelines.

When customers see employees actively cleaning, and that employees are provided the proper tools and information, it shows there is care for their safety and well-being, and reassurance of cleanliness. Plan, preach and practice strong infection control, preparedness, and health all the time. Your customers and employees will thank you.