Tag Archives: employee retention

Melanie Neumann, Neumann Risk Services
FST Soapbox

The COVID-19 Record Retention Conundrum

By Melanie J. Neumann
2 Comments
Melanie Neumann, Neumann Risk Services

During this global pandemic, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) green-lighted employers to take temperatures checks of employees and to administer COVID-19 testing for workers prior to returning to work without running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This appears straight-forward upon first reading, however, several practical uncertainties about implementation, including confidentiality, discrimination, and how long to retain records remain.

As such, deciding whether to take temperatures and/or require COVID- 19 testing as a return to work strategy is more complicated than it may seem.

Temperature Screening & Testing Considerations

Temperature screening and COVID-19 mandatory testing are both permitted medical examinations during this pandemic but are otherwise prohibited during non-pandemic times. Before adopting, employers should understand the requirements impacting the records these tests generate, including the need to protect confidentiality and to retain records for longer than one may expect.

Temperature Screens
Under normal circumstances, temperature checks are considered a prohibited medical examination under the ADA. During a pandemic, however, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) makes an exception, allowing employers to take temperatures/use temperature checks and exclude employees from the workplace should temperatures exceed public health recommendations. If employers keep records of temperatures, they must retain these records per applicable regulations. This is important because an “employee medical record” would likely result if employers take employees’ temperatures or collect temperature related records. As we will see below, there are regulatory requirements that require how we conduct these screens, and where and for how long we must retain them.

COVID-19 Testing

COVID-19 testing also constitutes a permissible medical exam under ADA during this pandemic, per the EEOC-issued guidance regarding mandatory employee testing.

For medical examinations to be allowed under the ADA, the test must be “job related and consistent with business necessity,” and employers must treat information as a confidential medical exam.

The initial guidance acknowledged that the spread of COVID-19 is a “direct threat,” hence meeting the requirement that a medical exam be “job related and consistent with business necessity” and that temperature screenings were therefore appropriate. For the same reasons, in updated guidance released at the end of April 2020, the EEOC expanded that guidance to clarify that employers may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus for the same reasons.

When reading the EEOC’s language closely, the permission granted by EEOC appears to be for diagnostic tests, as the guidance states testing is to determine if employees have the virus before allowing employees to return to work. It is unclear whether antibody testing is included in the above analysis because antibody tests do not determine if someone is currently infected.

In addition, there are other considerations employers should assess before adopting a testing protocol. EEOC reminds employers that they must review the accuracy and efficacy of the selected test per FDA and CDC recommendations. Moreover, pragmatic considerations, such as how to maintain social distancing and employee privacy, determining who will perform the testing and at what the frequency, not to mention evaluating whether there is enough test capacity to perform employee-wide testing at a meaningful cadence should be evaluated.

Records Management & Retention

There is another often over-looked question: What do employers do with documented test records? This question applies whether the employer conducts the test, requires tests from employee’s healthcare providers to be off work to self-isolate, or as a return to work requirement.

It was clearly outlined above that temperature records and COVID-19 test records constitute employee medical records. Why is this important? Because there are specific requirements relating to employee medical records, including what appears to be a surprisingly long retention requirement.

Where to retain: An employer should store all medical information related to COVID-19 in existing medical files, separate from the employee’s personnel file, per the ADA, limiting access to this employee confidential information. This includes an employee’s statement that he has COVID-19 or suspects he/she has the disease, or the employer’s notes or other documentation from questioning an employee about symptoms.

How long to retain: That is the 30-year question. The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) provides retention requirements for employee medical records in certain situations for a period of an employee’s employment plus 30 years.

While COVID-19 test results and temperature screening documentation are deemed medical examinations under the applicable regulations, are the documented results deemed medical records? We turn to applicable EEOC OSHA regulations in section 1910.1020 for answers.

OSHA Requirements

The OSHA general duty clause, section 5(a)(1) requires employers to furnish to each of its employees a workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm. COVID-19 appears to rise to this threat level. But is that fact alone dispositive to falling under the applicable OSHA retention requirements?

OSHA regulation section 1910.1020 requires employers to retain employee exposure or employee medical records relating to employee exposure to certain hazards. This section applies to each general industry, maritime and construction employer who makes, maintains, contracts for, or has access to employee exposure or medical records, or analyses thereof, pertaining to employees exposed to toxic substances or harmful physical agents (Emphasis added).

Is SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, considered a “toxic substance or harmful physical agent?”

Most would quickly assume the answer is ‘yes’. But it may not be as clear as the black and white letter of the law would hope. Let’s review some key definitions in the applicable regulation to help shed more light on this question.

What are Toxic Substances or Harmful Physical Agents?

The record retention requirement pivots on the last phrase of 1910.1020, that is “…pertaining to employees exposed to toxic substances or harmful physical agents.”

Toxic substances or harmful physical agents are defined as follows;

  • 1910.1020(c)(13) “Toxic substance or harmful physical agent” means any chemical substance, biological agent (bacteria, virus, fungus, etc.), or physical stress (noise, heat, cold, vibration, repetitive motion, ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, hypo – or hyperbaric pressure, etc.) which:
    • 1910.1020(c)(13)(i) is listed in the latest printed edition of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances (RTECS) which is incorporated by reference as specified in Sec. 1910.6; or
    • 1910.1020(c)(13)(ii) has yielded positive evidence of an acute or chronic health hazard in testing conducted by, or known to, the employer; or
    • 1910.1020(c)(13)(iii) is the subject of a material safety data sheet kept by or known to the employer indicating that the material may pose a hazard to human health. (Emphasis added by author).

The use of “or” clarifies that only one of the criteria need to be met. Based on the above, while subsections (c)(13)(i) and (c)(13)(iii) do not appear relevant, subsection (c)(13)(ii) appears to apply as SARS-CoV-2 has shown to result in acute health hazard, resulting in the disease COVID-19. Whether there is a chronic health impact remains to be seen given the novelty of this virus. That said, acute health impact appears sufficient to determine SARS-CoV-2 as a “toxic substance or harmful physical agent” for purposes of this analysis.

This alone doesn’t automatically place an employer in a 30-plus year requirement to retain employee medical records. What constitutes an “employee medical record” and “employee exposure record” for purposes of this regulation must be further understood before determining appropriate retention.

What are Employee Medical Records and Employee Exposure Records?

“Employee medical records” are defined in section 1910.1020(c)(6), and means a record concerning the health status of an employee that is made or maintained by a physician, nurse or other healthcare personnel, or technician, including: Medical and employment questionnaires or histories, the results of medical exams, lab test results, medical opinions/doctor’s recommendations, first aid records, employee medical complaints, and descriptions of treatment or prescriptions.

Section 1910.1020(d)(1)(i) goes on to specifically prescribes a minimum of a 30-plus year retention period as follows: “The medical record for each employee shall be preserved and maintained for at least the duration of employment plus thirty (30) years.”

“Employee exposure records,” are defined in subsection 1910.1020(d)(1)(ii), as: “Each employee exposure record shall be preserved and maintained for at least thirty (30) years,…”. Some exceptions are listed in this subsection for records relating to health insurance claims, first aid records and records relating to employees working less than one year.

What Constitutes Employee Exposure?

One must also look at what “employee exposure” means in light of this regulatory requirement to determine applicability of the 30-plus year retention.

1910.1020(c)(8) defines “exposure” or “exposed” to mean that an employee is subjected to a toxic substance or harmful physical agent in the course of employment through any route of entry (inhalation, ingestion, skin contact or absorption, etc.), and includes past exposure and potential (e.g., accidental or possible) exposure, but does not include situations where the employer can demonstrate that the toxic substance or harmful physical agent is not used, handled, stored, generated, or present in the workplace in any manner different from typical non-occupational situations.

More Questions than Answers

This analysis may leave more questions than answers, as several questions remain after looking closely at the regulatory requirements. For example:

  • How can an employee prove that exposure to SARS-CoV-2 occurred in the course of employment?
  • Does the employee even have to? The regulation clearly states that it is the employer’s burden, in that the “employer demonstrate that a toxic substance or harmful physical agent was not present in the workplace in any manner different from typical, non-occupational situations”.
  • How can an “employer demonstrate” that the harmful physical agent was not present? In other words, how can employers demonstrate that its employees are at any greater exposure by coming to work than they are in their every day lives, like going to the grocery store?
  • How do employers prove absence? Is it even possible given several people are asymptomatic?
  • Does this analysis differ by food industry sectors? What about meat and poultry processors with known high rates of infection in their workplace? Would the analysis differ?

Conclusion

Short of additional guidance issued by Department of Labor’s OSHA, ultimately this will likely be decided by the courts when the first lawsuit on this topic arises, known as decision via case law. What do employers do in the interim while these shades of gray are not yet adjudicated? It is recommended to err on the side of caution. Find ways to adjust your company’s record retention procedures and systems to be able to accurately retain these records for the duration of your employee’s employment plus 30 years.

Resources

  1. OSHA Laws & Regulations. OSH Act of 1970. SEC 5. Duties. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/oshact/section5-duties
  2. OSHA Standards. Part 1910, Standard 1910.1020. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1020
  3. OSHA. Access to Medical and Exposure Records. (2001). U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/Publications/pub3110text.html
  4.  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws”. (Updated May 7, 2020). Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-covid-19-and-ada-rehabilitation-act-and-other-eeo-laws. See A. 6 and B.1.
Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

How Will AR and VR Improve Safety in the Food Industry?

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

The food and beverage sector is a huge presence in the U.S. economy. As of 2017, the industry employed 1.46 million people across 27,000 different establishments. Total food and beverage sales stand at around $1.4 trillion and add $164 billion in value to the economy as a whole.1 This presents significant opportunities and risks alike. Companies that trade in food products are held to some of the highest regulatory standards. With globalization ongoing and a higher demand than ever for variety and niche products, companies find they need to expand the mobility of their services. They must also broaden their product choices without missing a beat when it comes to quality.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have emerged as unlikely allies in that quest. These technologies are already having a positive impact on food and worker safety in the industry.

Improves New Employee Training

Onboarding and training new employees is a costly and time-consuming endeavor in any industry. Moreover, failure by companies to impart the necessary skills, and failure by employees to retain them, can have ghastly consequences. Errors on assembly lines may result in faulty products, recalls, worker and customer injuries, and worse.

The stakes in the food and beverage sector are just as high as they are in other labor- and detail-oriented industries. VR provides an entirely new kind of training experience for employees, whether they’re working on mastering their pizza cutting technique or brewing the perfect cappuccino. Other times, “getting it right” is about much more than aesthetic appeal and immediate customer satisfaction.

Animal slaughtering and processing facilities represent some of the more extreme examples of potentially dangerous workplaces in the larger food and beverage industry. Between 2011 and 2015, this U.S. sector experienced 73 fatal workplace injuries. Excepting poultry processing, 2015 saw 9,800 recordable incidents in animal processing, or 7.2 cases for every 100 full-time employees.

Some adopters of VR-based employee training claim that virtual reality yields up to an 80% retention rate one year after an employee has been trained. This compares extremely favorably to the estimated 20% retention rate of traditional training techniques.

Training via VR headset can help companies get new hires up to speed faster in a safe, detailed and immersive environment. Food processing and service are high-turnover employment sectors. The right training technology can help workers feel better prepared and more engaged with their work, potentially reducing employee churn.

Helps Eliminate Errors in Food Processing

Augmented reality is already demonstrating great promise in manufacturing, maintenance and other sectors. For instance, an AR headset can give an assembly line worker in an automotive plant detailed, step-by-step breakdowns of their task in their peripheral vision through a digital overlay.

The same goes for food and beverage manufacturing. AR headsets can superimpose a list of inspection or processing tasks for workers to follow as they prepare food items in a manufacturing or distribution facility.

In 2018, there was an estimated 382 recalls involving food products. Augmented reality alone won’t bring that number down to zero. However, it does help reduce instances of line workers and inspectors missing critical steps in processing or packaging that might result in contamination or spoilage.

Eases the Learning Curve in Food Preparation

There are lots of food products in the culinary world that are downright dangerous if they’re not prepared properly and by following specific steps. Elderberries, various species of fish, multiple root vegetables, and even cashews and kidney beans can all induce illness and even death if the right steps aren’t taken to make them fit for consumption.

In early 2019, inspectors descended on a Michelin-starred and highly respected restaurant in Valencia, Spain. The problem? A total of 30 patrons reported falling ill after eating at El País, one of whom lost her life. Everyone reported symptoms similar to food poisoning.

The common element in each case appeared to be morel mushrooms. These are considered a luxury food item, but failure to cook them properly can result in gastric problems and worse. Augmented reality could greatly reduce the likelihood of incidents like this in the future by providing ongoing guidance and reminders to new and veteran chefs alike, without taking the bulk of their attention away from work.

Brings New Efficiencies to Warehousing and Pick-and-Pack

Consumers around the globe are getting used to ordering even highly perishable foodstuffs over the internet—and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods is an indicator of what’s to come: Hundreds of freezer-equipped and climate-controlled warehouses located within a stone’s throw from a majority of the American population.

Ensuring smooth operations in perishable food and beverage supply chains is a major and ongoing struggle. It’s not just a practical headache for companies—it’s something of a moral imperative, too. The World Health Organization finds that around 600 million individuals worldwide fall ill each year due to foodborne illnesses.

Augmented reality won’t completely solve this problem, but it may greatly reduce a major source of potential spoilage and contamination: Inefficiencies in picking and packing operations. Order pickers equipped with AR headsets can:

  • Receive visual prompts to quickly find their way to designated stow locations in refrigerated warehouses after receiving refrigerated freight.
  • Locate pick locations more efficiently while retrieving single items or when they already have a partial order of perishable goods picked.

In both cases, the visual cues provided by AR help employees navigate warehousing locations much more quickly and efficiently. This substantially lowers the likelihood that food products are stuck in limbo in unrefrigerated areas, potentially coming into contact with noncompliant temperatures or pathogens. The FDA recognizes mispackaged and mislabeled food products as a major public health risk.

For food and beverage companies, AR should be a welcome development and a worthy investment. FSMA recognized that 48 million Americans get sick each year from compromised foods. The act required these entities to be much more proactive in drawing up prevention plans for known sources of contamination and to be more deliberate in standardizing their processes for safety’s sake.

AR and VR Boost Food, Worker and Customer Safety

Augmented and virtual reality may seem like an unusual ally in an industry where most consumers are primarily focused on the aesthetic and sensory aspects of the experience. However, there’s a whole world that lives and dies according to the speed and attention to detail of employees and decision-makers alike. Augmented realities, and entirely new ones, point the way forward.

Reference

  1. Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board. (March 2017). “Economic Contribution of the Food and Beverage Industry. Retrieved from https://www.ced.org/pdf/Economic_Contribution_of_the_Food_and_Beverage_Industry.pdf.