As the economy continues to reopen and gain strength amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a common concern is how to ensure the safety of the public and the workers at businesses around the country.
Government certainly has a role in providing information, guidance and support. But ultimately its best approach is to serve as a partner and allow the private sector to operate and thrive.
Businesses and workers around the country have stepped up already to take proper precautions for workplace safety. They’ve shut down operations temporarily, reopened with limited capacity and made adjustments to workplaces. They have rearranged and modified seating and open spaces, created and accommodated more online and virtual meetings and events, and provided additional sanitizing, masks and social distancing.
To understand the pandemic and how best to protect people from contracting the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided updated information on how best to identify and prevent infection.
The Food and Drug Administration has helped to develop and distribute tests and treatments for the virus. Many of these efforts have succeeded through cooperation between public and private entities.
Companies like Pfizer, Gilead and Moderna are working around the clock to develop treatments and vaccines — and will depend on the promised expedited review by the National Institutes for Health and the FDA.
In the nonprofit sector, groups such as Catholic Charities, Meals on Wheels, United Way and many others have provided food, counseling, social contact and other immediate support.
And of course frontline health care workers and other workers deemed “essential” in the early stages of the pandemic bravely stepped up to provide much needed services.
We need to continue this public-private cooperation.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopts standards and minimum requirements for workplace safety and reports on workplace injuries and illnesses. While OSHA is also authorized to enforce these requirements, it should concentrate its efforts on providing assistance and outreach to those businesses needing help, especially during the pandemic.
State workers’ compensation laws provide insurance coverage determinations of medical and indemnity benefits for certain work-related injuries or illnesses. While workers’ compensation laws provide compensation for “occupational diseases” that arise out of employment, many state statutes exclude “ordinary diseases of life.” However, some workplaces and occupations (such as health care workers) have a higher probability for exposure and are thus more likely to be compensated.
While COVID-19 is a new pandemic, the circumstances relating to workplace safety are not unique to COVID. In fact, OSHA and state workers’ compensation laws already address protocols and protections in cases related to workplace safety and communicable diseases.
The best thing government has done, and can do, is provide standards for safety and support in how to deal with COVID, then step out of the way and allow businesses and individuals to thrive.
This may not be the last pandemic we must deal with, but it can serve as a model on how best to address the next one.