As much as we’d all like to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, the World Health Organization warns that other zoonotic diseases are likely to emerge in the future, and that epidemics and pandemics could become more frequent. Before COVID-19, communicable diseases weren’t getting much attention as a workers’ compensation issue, but that may change in 2022: OSHA plans to increase its rulemaking budget in 2022, with the creation of infectious disease standards for front-line workers cited as a priority.

Even without prompting from regulators, companies are seeing the value of preventing the spread of communicable diseases within their facilities and preparing for potential new epidemics and pandemics. Those engaged in workers’ compensation risk management should be working with clients to better manage the spread of communicable diseases in the workplace.

The food and beverage industry was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, but some companies were hurt more than others depending on their resilience and readiness. An industry survey conducted by the American Institute of Baking found that 61% of companies they surveyed said they weren’t adequately prepared for the pandemic. Many found their plans didn’t sufficiently address COVID-19 and its effects, and more than a third didn’t have pandemic preparedness plans at all. That same survey showed that better-prepared companies were two times more likely to report no notable change in operating costs and were 2.5 times less likely to have experienced a decrease in revenue.

As other industries weigh their COVID-19 pandemic response against their crisis plans, some key points organizations should pay particular attention to include:

  • Creating pandemic-specific policies and procedures, especially for employee communications, telecommuting and personal leave policies, to minimize disruptions.
  • Ensuring plans include early intervention with sick or injured employees and that nurse case managers, defense attorneys and claim adjusters are all following consistent protocols.
  • Reviewing all documentation, including job descriptions, thorough accident investigations and claims record-keeping to evaluate whether updates are necessary for a future pandemic response.

Companies were forced to adapt quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as it recedes, organizations should review what worked and what didn’t and decide which practices to make permanent. Doing so helps prepare for the communicable diseases of the future while reducing the spread of viruses that remain an ongoing threat to employee health and productivity.

OSHA recommends employers review their guidelines and conduct a workplace assessment of their pandemic response to see which practices should remain in place indefinitely. Some OSHA-recommended practices to consider include:

  • Contact Tracing: Large, essential businesses found contract tracing helped them determine compensability for workplace exposures and better understand how viruses circulate.
  • Social Distancing: Workstation changes made in manufacturing and other industries where employees work in close proximity might make sense to remain permanent.
  • Presenteeism: Ensure corporate culture and sick leave policies discourage employees from coming to work when sick with communicable diseases.
  • Vaccine Information: Employers are forced to navigate the volatile territory of vaccine requirements, so clear and accurate communication with employees will be essential.
  • Protective Personal Equipment (PPE): Companies may want to continue providing proper face coverings where appropriate and make improvements to cleaning and sanitizing practices.

Interestingly, many of the same comorbidities that drive up employers’ workers’ compensation claims may also increase an employee’s chances of suffering from a more

serious case of COVID-19. The long-term benefits of employee-based wellness programs and their impact on workers’ compensation claims have been well-established over the past several years. Some key areas that wellness programs can focus on combating include:

  • Obesity
  • Type II diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Hypertension
  • Poor sleep
  • Mental health disorders

Just as the financial crisis of 2008 brought thousands of new pieces of legislation to strengthen the global financial system, many experts expect the same in relation to employees’ rights and health in the wake of COVID-19. Labor unions, occupational health advocates and some members of Congress are calling for OSHA to issue an infectious disease standard.

OSHA asked for a $28.5 million increase for its 2022 budget to “restore OSHA’s rulemaking and guidance capacity” with a focus on workplace violence and infectious diseases. They received a $20 million increase on March 15, 2022. In terms of a future pandemic’s effect on workers’ compensation rates, NCCI is proposing that any event exceeding $50 million in losses be excluded from the data used to set rates, including future pandemics. While workers’ compensation didn’t take the hit some feared at the start of the pandemic, expectations for how workplaces protect employees from the spread of disease have been raised across society. All involved can benefit from applying the hard-earned lessons from COVID-19.

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