All employers are required by federal law to identify potential hazards in the workplace and take steps necessary to protecting their employees, said Gina Fonte, a Boston-based senior counsel at international law firm Holland & Knight who focuses on workplace safety.
In the era of COVID-19, employers will have to pay even closer attention to those standards set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, as the pandemic uniquely threatens workplaces across industries, she said. For example, office workplaces may require face masks and hand sanitizer now, which employers would be obligated by law to provide, she said.
That adds a hurdle for companies and employers, which now must source and buy personal protective equipment, known as PPE.
"The fact is that it's hard to find personal protective equipment and more people need it," Fonte said. "(COVID-19) certainly did create a lot of new PPE and safety requirements for employers and workplaces that might not have been prepared to deal with these issues."
Nationwide, workers already have filed thousands of COVID-19-related OSHA complaints during the pandemic. In Massachusetts alone, hundreds of essential workers filed federal complaints about their safety, including not being provided PPE and being forced to work in grocery stores, at medical facilities and for delivery services beside sick colleagues.
Until there is a vaccine, proven treatment or cure for the virus, there will be concern in the workplace about safety or potential exposure to the illness, Fonte said. Employers must balance a real desire to help the economy with the safety and health of their employees, she said.
States such as Maryland saw an opportunity to help small businesses buying protective equipment and manufacturers selling it. The Old Line State earlier this month launched a platform to connect businesses within the state, vetting suppliers to make it easier for buyers.
"It really created a way for the local community to find companies in the state to fill those needs," said Michael Kelleher, executive director of the Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a nonprofit that worked with the state's Department of Commerce for this effort.
Similar efforts are underway in Colorado, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Other state and local governments are providing some safety equipment for free.