Employers are generally obligated to take reasonable steps to ensure that workers do their job in a safe work environment. Thanks to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, this was true before the advent of COVID-19 and remains so during the pandemic.

How dangerous is a workplace?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued non-binding guidelines for businesses’ responsibilities during the COVID-19 era. In doing this, it defines four grades of risk:

  • Low exposure: This usually involves employees who have little or no contact with the public.
  • Medium exposure: This involves employees who work with the public, such as in schools or stores.
  • High exposure: This involves medical staff exposed to patients who might have contracted the virus.
  • Very high exposure: This involves medical and staff lab technicians working on patients diagnosed or suspected of COVID-19 illness.

Steps for protecting workers

Employers need to take measures that address the unique circumstances of the job description. Generally speaking, they should encourage or require employees to follow all social distancing recommendations, employing safety protocols and using barriers. They should provide masks, protective gear, and isolate employees suspected of contracting the virus. It may also be necessary for higher-risk situations to provide sanitizer and verify employees’ health using medical monitoring devices like thermometers.

What if work is too dangerous?

Those who fear serious physical harm in the workplace have the right to refuse to report to work. Reasons for this include the employer not providing the above safety measures or viable alternatives to working onsite. The worker must also do this in good faith and not use COVID-19 as an excuse for not doing their job. The employee should document this. Regardless of whether the claim is justified, the employer often is not obliged to pay the employee who does not work.

There may be legal options

Employees who are furloughed or laid off can get unemployment insurance.  But these benefits may be available to those dismissed or quit to take care of a loved one sick with the virus. Those with questions about their workplace’s safety or reasons for leaving may wish to discuss the matter with an experienced employment law attorney. These legal professionals can help ensure that the worker’s rights are protected even during the pandemic.