Coronavirus at work: Yes, one meeting can make a difference

Even OSHA recommends ‘social distancing’ for employers

As companies adopt response plans to protect against coronavirus, some employees may push back, wondering if skipping that next in-person meeting could really make a difference. Two recent stories illustrate that one meeting can matter.

Consider the difficult story of one biotech firm. About 175 of its managers from around the world gathered for a meeting in February in Boston. They met in a hotel meeting space and went out for a group dinner. Following the meeting, many of them went on to travel further and participate in other conferences.

The following week, a number of participants reported flu-like symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19. Massachusetts health officials have now tracked 32 cases of the novel coronavirus to that one meeting in Boston. Those infected include two attendees who returned to Indiana, five people who returned to North Carolina, a Pennsylvania man who then attended a conference in Florida and four executives who next attended an investor conference, among others.

The impact extended to their families and communities, too. Two schools in Wellesley, Massachusetts closed when they learned that a parent had attended the Boston meeting and become ill. At another Boston-area school, a student whose parent participated in the management meeting tested positive as well.


A corporate coronavirus success story

Another company, Webasto, has a similar story but also shows how you can successfully manage this crisis. Webasto is an auto parts supplier based in a small town outside Munich, Germany. In late January, an employee from China visited company headquarters for training. She had just seen her parents, who live in Wuhan.

She didn’t know at the time that she was infected with COVID-19. She didn’t have symptoms until she returned from her trip. But, within days of the training seminar, 16 people had gotten the virus as a result of the meeting, including nine colleagues in Germany, five of their family members and two employees in China.

Fortunately, the company acted quickly and aggressively. It appointed a task force, worked with local authorities and ultimately ended up shutting down its offices for a full two weeks. The response worked. As of now, everyone in the company survived and is virus-free.


Helping employees keep their distance can be key

The Webasto experience reinforces the importance of adopting a strong response plan for your company. It’s critical to determine the exposure risks in your workplaces, communicate with employees, teach and reinforce good hygiene and provide appropriate supplies.

As the virus continues to spread, every workplace should consider how it can reduce person-to-person contact for employees, including encouraging telework, reducing or canceling travel and even closing offices if necessary. You won’t be alone. Twitter, Microsoft, Apple and Google, among many others, have all reportedly asked employees to cancel travel and to work remotely.

Not every job can be done remotely. But, if you maximize teleworking and minimize meetings for those who can, everyone will be safer. Experts believe that the virus spreads most through respiratory droplets traveling up to six feet between people. And it spreads exponentially.

According to the World Health Organization, each infected person can, in turn, infect 2.5 others. That’s a potential nightmare if it gets loose in your workplace.

But, it also means that the benefit of every contact avoided is multiplied. If the infected person stays home and/or others who might have caught it are not there to catch it, you can prevent transmission. Even if only a third or half of your teams can work remotely or skip a meeting at any given time, you can significantly reduce the chance of transmission. As drastic as it sounds, it is a step worth strong consideration.

Even OSHA is recommending this kind of “social distancing” in its latest alert to employers about the virus. And while it’s doubtful OSHA would cite a company that becomes overwhelmed by a pandemic except in the most extreme circumstances of willful misconduct, no one wants to be the poster child for the harm that comes when prudent measures are not taken.


Avi Meyerstein is a Washington, D.C.-based partner with the law firm Husch Blackwell LLP. He leads the firm’s safety and health group.


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