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Responding to workplace safety issues during the pandemic

Many people around the country are nearing six months of working from home. Of course, while essential workers never left “the office,” other employees have gone back to work—finding circumstance less than ideal.

A summer Gallup poll found about three-quarters of working Americans believe COVID-19 is having a negative effect on their workplace. Almost half were worried about exposure at work. And just 25 percent strongly agree that they can return to work safely.

If you have safety concerns about returning to work, consider taking these steps.

headshot of Sybil Pressprich
Sybil Pressprich, career services director at UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies

Educate yourself about COIVD-19 and your risk. Make sure you know the facts about coronavirus by checking the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) site at cdc.gov/coronavirus and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services at dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus. It’s thought to spread mainly between people who are in close contact through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Older adults and people who have severe underlying medical conditions seem to be at higher risk for developing serious complications from COVID-19. Assess your risk and the risk of people close to you.

Talk with your employer about your concerns. When you’re ready to approach your supervisor, assume good intentions: Your employer doesn’t want you to get sick. Many businesses and organizations are spending time and resources implementing complicated policies and procedures to keep people safe. That said, if you feel like you or those in your care are at high risk and you want to continue to work remotely, come to your employer ready to build a case. Offer your boss evidence of how working from home has benefitted the company and strategies you will use to continue to be productive.

During the conversation, always focus on yourself and use “I” statements rather than make accusations or judgements. For example, “I have a medical condition that might be a factor in my ability to work in closer quarters with other people,” rather than, “You need to allow me to work at home because of my medical condition.”

If you must return to work and are concerned about being protected against the virus, check the CDC website for a section on recommendations for returning to work and ask whether your employer is implementing guidelines. All employees should practice every day preventative actions such as frequent handwashing, maintaining six feet between people, covering mouth and nose with a mask when around others and cleaning frequently touched surfaces daily.

If it seems your employer is not implementing guidelines, offer suggestions. Can you help find a place to procure masks for employers and a spot in the office for hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes? Offer to be a part of solutions. For example, if employees work in an area that gets hot, and they’re often taking off masks to catch some breaths, suggest your employer open up an additional office down the hall to help people spread out, and offer to help make that happen.

Make hard choices, if necessary. Under federal law, everyone is entitled to a safe workplace. You do have the right to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) if you feel you are being exposed to a serious health or safety hazard. But know that a federal complaint may not be easily enforced in your local area. If you have suffered retaliation because you voiced concerns about a health or safety hazard, you have the right to file a whistleblower protection complaint with OSHA. But again, it may not help your situation—and may make it worse.

In some cases, your employer may not be willing or able to provide you with the safety you require in order to return to work. At that point, ask yourself if your values match those of your employer. You might have to make a difficult choice. But businesses are still hiring, so it may be time to explore other options in the interest of staying safe and healthy.

Sybil Pressprich is the career services director at UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. She can be reached at sybil.pressprich@wisc.edu.