As even more employees return to work, staff safety is top of mind for every business – and has been for some time within the hospitality industry. Virginia recently adopted the country’s first set of coronavirus-related workplace safety mandates, requiring businesses to implement safety measures to protect people from being infected with the coronavirus at work.
To find out how Virginia’s new safety mandates might impact other states with the U.S.A., HT spoke with Gary Pearce, chief risk architect at Aclaimant, an insight-driven workflow solution for safety and risk management.
In a nutshell, what do the Virginia COVID-19 safety guidelines mandate that employers do for employees?
Virginia’s COVID-19 safety guidelines translate what had been a set of advisory practices into a comprehensive legal obligation that applies to nearly all workers and worksites within the state. The foundational step is a hazard assessment, the results of which will determine the depth of the additional actions that will be required. All employers will be obligated to have processes for employees to self-report symptoms, keep symptomatic employees away and manage their return, provide personal protective equipment, ensure social distancing, create response plans, and train workers on coronavirus safety protocols, among others.
Do you think other states will follow their lead and enact similar mandates?
Yes, I believe other states will follow Virginia’s lead and enact similar mandates, and the fact that there are several ways that these mandates can arise makes this outcome more likely. The traditional route is through a bill introduced in the state legislature, passed through both houses, and signed by the governor. However, a more relevant and immediate method could be through governors exercising their emergency powers. Changes in how state agencies interpret and apply existing regulations, such as the general duty clauses applicable to workplace safety, can also have a significant impact.
Why is it significant that this is coming from the state and not the federal level?
This is similar to a trend experienced in other compliance realms. Certain states and municipalities regard federal policies as insufficient or are dissatisfied with the pace of action, so they enact their own rules. Apart from the fact that this results in some states with their own rules and others without, it’s likely that there will be material differences in the content of the various mandates that will emerge.
For organizations with multiple work sites, this triggers a need to keep up with all the changes and makes operational compliance more difficult to manage. Also, don’t discount the possibility of having additional regulations at the county or municipal level.
What might these mandates mean for hotels/restaurants?
For some businesses it will mean that additional processes and precautions must be enacted immediately. These mandates set forth a defined way for businesses in the hospitality industry to keep their employees and patrons safe. Consumers will feel more comfortable returning to hotels and restaurants knowing that these businesses are adhering to a high standard to limit exposure to COVID-19.
Guidance will continue to evolve as facts change and as more is learned. It’s important for businesses in the hospitality industry that might have been operating throughout the pandemic to keep tabs on regulations or guidance coming from OSHA, the CDC, and other authorities to ensure they’re continuing to deliver a safe experience for customers and employees.
If a state has not yet enacted a similar type of mandate, what should hotels and/or restaurants do?
Start with the recognition that these mandates are a reflection, though perhaps an imperfect one, of society’s expectations. The relevance of this is that even if a particular state has not enacted a similar mandate, this is a powerful indicator of how organizations will be judged in the event of an exposure incident. While the penalties levied by occupational health authorities can be substantial, they are modest when compared to the potential for runaway jury verdicts. Failure to meet even an “advisory” standard could be judged harshly.
The consequence is that regardless of any state mandate, it’s important to protect everyone the organization interacts with. For example, hotels and restaurants must require vendors and contractors to exercise similar diligence that their own workforce is following when coming on site and interacting with guests and employees. Additionally, patrons of restaurants and hotels must have guidelines for how to act when going into and staying at these businesses.
How might hotels/restaurants use technology to help ensure employee safety and mitigate risk?
Implementing technology that provides visibility and insight into the many risk areas associated with COVID-19 is necessary for effective risk mitigation – especially within the hospitality industry. Employers need technology that enforces a controlled and consistent approach, provides organizations with all necessary documentation should their practices be challenged, and ensures that the cost of administering this process is not posing its own crisis. For example, at Aclaimant, our technology enables hotels and restaurants to identify required follow-up actions when an employee reports COVID-19 symptoms, tracks individuals who have interacted with these symptomatic employees (contact tracing), and helps businesses stay informed of CDC guidelines.
A few questions to consider: Are the technologies efficient and collaborative? Is access segregated to protect privacy? Does the technology provide insight for the organization to act upon and manage risk better? Can the technology be applied to other risk categories so that organizations can have a holistic perspective?
Lastly, it’s critical to keep records of everything – if you can’t prove in a year or two that you kept accurate records of cases and virus-related matters, defending yourself will be difficult. Make sure your technologies facilitate this objective.
Any other comments?
Businesses need to take a step back and recognize that COVID-19 is likely to be a single episode in an ongoing process. These changes, particularly those that pertain to society’s expectations, will endure even when we’ve moved past this pandemic. Therefore, many of the practices and protocols that may have been prompted by COVID-19 will need to remain in place well after this crisis has passed. Organizations in the hospitality business must recognize the necessity of ongoing change and continually revisit their risk management strategy to ensure the safety of employees and patrons alike.