When to Report a COVID-19 Exposure to Regulators

When to Report a COVID-19 Exposure to Regulators

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections continues to rise worldwide, many employers are struggling to understand when they would be required to record and report an infection involving one of their employees to an applicable regulatory agency or worker’s compensation board. The short answer is: it depends.

That’s probably not the answer you were looking for.  And that’s because the rules surrounding reporting and recordkeeping of COVID-19 exposures are nuanced, and it forces businesses to play detective whenever they are informed that one of their workers may have contracted COVID-19. 

To help alleviate some of this confusion, we’ve scoured regulations across several countries to better understand what expectations are placed on employers to report in the event they learn an employee has contracted the virus. 

Reporting COVID-19 Exposures: United States

In early March 2020, the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) released guidance to employers outlining the specific OSHA standards and directives that may apply to worker exposure to COVID-19.  That guidance indicated that employers may need to include a COVID-19 illness as part of their annual OSHA 300 log “depending on the specific work task, setting and exposure”.

OSHA confirmed that a COVID-19 infection becomes recordable if the exposure meets 3 specific criteria:

  1. The worker has a COVID-19 infection confirmed in accordance with US CDC protocols
  2. The infection is deemed occupational under OSHA Standard 29 CFR 1904.5 
  3. The infection involves one or more of the specific recording criteria outlined in 29 CFR 1904.7, specifically the illness that resulted in death, loss of consciousness, days away from work, restricted work or receipt of medical treatment beyond first aid. 

The infection involves one or more of the specific recording criteria outlined in 29 CFR 1904.7, specifically that the illness resulted in death, loss of consciousness, days away from work,  restricted work or receipt of medical treatment beyond first aid.

COVID-19 OSHA Recordkeeping and Reporting Challenges

These criteria create some practical challenges for employers in determining recordability. 

Firstly, how can businesses reliably confirm whether an infection was the result of a bona fide work exposure, as opposed to something that occurred after the person left the workplace?  While 29 CFR 1904.5 (b)(2)(viii) states that “contagious diseases…are considered work-related if the employee is infected at work”, a worker simply showing symptoms at work doesn’t immediately mean transmission occurred there. 

It can be difficult to understand where and when an individual was infected, since we know that persons infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus may not show symptoms for many days following initial exposure.  But since it’s not an exact science, a prudent way to assess recordability would be to consider the possible nature of the exposure “based on the balance of probabilities”.  In other words, based on what we know about the individual, their position, work setting and the hazards to which they are normally exposed, is workplace exposure that led to COVID-19 infection most likely?  Whereas it would seem plausible that a front-line health care worker would have likely acquired the virus from treating patients at work, exposure in other work settings where the virus hasn’t been confirmed may not be as definitive.

And we need to remember that an infection itself doesn’t immediately trigger the recording and/or reporting requirement.  It’s the extent to which the illness results in death, lost time from work, impairment or the need for professional medical treatment that matters.  So, an employee who simply contacts the business to report they are unwell and are remaining at home to self-isolate as a precaution but doesn’t seek medical treatment or obtain a COVID-19 diagnosis might not necessarily trigger the recording requirement in the standard.

It’s not an easy judgment.  But it’s fair to say that if you become aware that an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, some investigative work is required to try to understand their movements and interactions at work over the preceding days, and to track possible exposure patterns.  Are other employees that interacted with this worker sick?  That might give a clue that the infection is occupational and must be reported. 

While OSHA announced recently a change to COVID-19 reporting requirements, in that employers outside of health care, emergency response and corrections would generally not need to report cases of COVID-19 transmission, it’s important to note that the reporting exemption would only apply if there is no “objective evidence that the transmission was work-related.” So while such objective evidence is more apparent in health care, it doesn’t immediately assume that non-health care businesses should take a laissez-faire approach.

Employers that take each reported infection seriously and do their homework are in a much better position to make the most informed decision on work-relatedness under the circumstances.  And consequently, employers that take such a prudent approach might find it easier to remain in legal compliance.

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Reporting COVID-19 Exposures in the United Kingdom

RIDDOR, or the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013, is the governing legislation that sets obligations for the reporting of all injuries, illnesses and death arising from work in the UK. Under the regulations, any disease or acute illness requiring medical treatment must be reported when that illness is attributed to a work-related exposure to a biological agent.

In this case, a COVID-19 infection would be reportable as an occupational illness if there is reasonable evidence to suggest that a work-related exposure is likely the cause of the disease, whether due to:

  • An identifiable event that exposed the individual to the agent, such as a confirmed report of the worker coming into contact with the respiratory droplets of an infected person, or when handling laboratory samples contaminated with the virus
  • An unidentifiable event but where there are reasonable grounds to conclude that the worker was exposed to the agent during the course of work (i.e. working on a hospital ward when treating patients with COVID-19).

Again, the criteria to determine recordability isn’t as black and white as we’d like it to be.  But it emphasizes the point, as with U.S. OSHA, that when we are advised of a COVID-19 infection involving one of our employees, we need to dig deeper to try to understand the variables that may have led to an at-work exposure.

Reporting COVID-19 Exposures: Canada and Australia

Depending on the circumstances, workplaces in Canada can be governed by either federal or provincial health and safety legislation.  The vast majority of workplaces operate under provincial jurisdiction.  And as each province is governed by different regulations, it can present unique challenges in meeting illness reporting requirements, especially for organizations whose operations span multiple provinces across the country. 

Yet irrespective of where you are, most regulators and worker’s compensation systems in Canada follow a similar set of criteria to determine which event types are reportable. 

The criteria would generally cover the following:

  • Does the worker have a positive diagnosis of COVID-19, based on credible medical results?
  • Has a source to COVID-19 been identified in the workplace?
  • Did the nature of the worker’s job create a risk of exposure and contracting the disease to an extent that the public at large would not normally be otherwise exposed?
  • Was there an opportunity for COVID-19 infection in the workplace along a compatible route of transmission?
  • Was the estimated date of exposure, the incubation period and the onset of symptoms clinically compatible with COVID-19 that has been established to exist at the workplace?

Similar to Canada, while occupational health and safety laws in Australia can be administered at either the federal or state level, depending on the nature of the workplace, they tend to follow a similar pattern. 

Generally, employers are obligated to notify their claims service provider within 48 hours of becoming aware of a work-related injury or illness. This means that the moment that they become aware of a potential work-related COVID-19 case, the employer should initiate a prompt and thorough investigation to uncover whether, on the balance of probabilities, the COVID-19 infection was the result of a workplace exposure.  Generally, a COVID-19 infection will be deemed occupational only where the worker’s employment was the main contributing factor.

Access to reliable, timely data is critical

We’ve attempted to clarify some of the confusion surrounding reporting obligations for COVID-19 infections in several countries.  But the simple truth is this:  Knowing when you need to report a COVID-19 infection is heavily dependent on your ability access to high-quality data in real-time.

Data that gives you a clear picture of infection risks, patterns of exposure, and the presence and effectiveness of exposure controls across your workplaces will better enable your business to not only respond to reported infections, but to assess the adequacy of your efforts to limit exposure risks, and lower the chances of virus transmission at work.

Getting Started: Creating a COVID-19 Crisis Control Center

Here’s one place we suggest you can start:  build a “crisis control center” for your COVID-19 response.  This control center will aggregate and synthesize your COVID-19 meta-data in a single location, to enable you to quickly assess what measures to control the spread of the virus are working, and where further attention is required.  It will help you ascertain the employees at greatest risk, to help identify what interventions are needed to reduce their chances of infection and/or passing it along to others.  Your control center will also enable you to communicate to leaders and front-line workers alike what the organization is doing to control infection risk, helping to build transparency and trust across the organization, and helping to demonstrate to leaders where additional resources are required, and conversely, what measures are generating a positive ROI.

Here’s an example of what your COVID-19 dashboard could look like:

When to Report a COVID-19 Exposure to Regulators

But let’s not forgot that access to good data is also dependent on the systems we have in place to collect that data promptly from the field.  Organizations able to leverage mobile applications that enable workers to report incidents, or the status of tasks quickly via their mobile device from the front lines will have more quality data at their fingertips that will help guide sound decision making – which is essential to manage any crisis effectively. 

Reduce the Risk of COVID-19 Infection in Your Workplace

Download our free Health Screening Assessment Toolset, designed to help front-line healthcare workers and EHS practitioners conduct rapid workforce health screening, reduce the risk of infection, and ensure business continuity:

COVID-19 exposure resources