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The New Struggle for Workplace Safety During COVID-19

Posted by EHS Insight Resources on June 2, 2020 at 1:14 PM

While many states have begun the slow process of reopening businesses, the coronavirus is far from over. The death toll recently surpassed 100,000, more people, almost double the number of deaths in the twenty years of the Vietnam War and within spitting distance of the death toll of World War I.

Even so, businesses find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the economy and the aftershocks will likely be felt for years, and many businesses have to resume operations in order to survive. On the other hand, businesses that reopen must also assume responsibility for keeping their workers and visitors safe.

One of the many consequences we’re likely to see? A surge in coronavirus-related workplace lawsuits. Here’s what that will mean for businesses.

The Risk for Businesses

For employers and employees, the risk is complicated.

Under federal law, employers are legally obligated to provide a safe work environment for their employees. They also have to take all reasonable steps to provide a safe environment for their patrons.

The problem is that the coronavirus is unlike most other hazards on the books.

Let’s say, for example, you’re an event-planning company that has been struggling since the pandemic hit. And let’s say you get a call to set up a party at the end of June. And what if, two weeks later, that event ends up on the news as a new hotspot? The planner, host, and vendors all took the right precautions, but they have no way of knowing if one person in the crowd is sick.

That’s a huge liability for businesses, especially with the lack of concrete guidelines.

Potential New Record for Coronavirus Litigation

Because of this, reopening is expected to coincide with a surge in personal injury lawsuits related to the virus. Anecdotally, lawyers have already reported more ads for ambulance chasers, lawsuit lending, and funding options from hedge funds that allow individuals to pursue litigation.

There are precedents in class-action lawsuits on this scale, like lawsuits during the Great Recession of 2008 and asbestos-related class-action lawsuits in the 1990s. But the sheer scale of the pandemic means that this new wave of lawsuits is likely to overshadow all of those precedents.

Businesses should also prepare for the significant possibility of lawsuits from employees. This is part of why reopening is so complicated – businesses are not constructed with social distancing in mind, and personal protective equipment remains a critical resource in hard-hit hospitals.

Your Coronavirus Safety Resource

Unfortunately, these are difficult times, and they’re not likely to get easier anytime soon. For now, the best businesses can do is to follow available guidelines as cautiously as possible and to prioritize safety above all other concerns.

If you need more coronavirus safety resources, make sure to check out our blog for more tips, like this post on our evolving understanding of coronavirus infections or this post on safety tips you need to know before reopening your workplace.

And from our team to yours, stay safe.

Topics: OSHA, Workplace Health and Safety, Compliance, EHS Management, Safety Management, Safety Culture, Human Resources, Coronavirus

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