- On their own, temperature checks aren't effective in detecting individuals infected with COVID-19, but they are becoming the norm in workplaces across America.
- Temperature checks are a requirement for businesses in some states and highly recommended in many others.
- A comprehensive health-screening policy, including taking temperatures and screening for specific COVID-19 symptoms, will go a long way to protect your employees from exposure to the virus.
- This article is for business owners who want to implement employee temperature checks to screen for the COVID-19 virus.
Temperature checks aren't foolproof protection against the coronavirus, but they can help you detect sick employees. Depending on the state you live in and the type of business you run, they may even be mandatory.
Even for businesses in states that don't mandate them, temperature checks are becoming a best practice for good reasons: They are easy to implement and add a layer of protection for customers and staff.
Are employee temperature checks mandatory?
As businesses work to stay open while keeping their customers and employees safe and happy, they must adhere to strict requirements such as enforcing masks, adding social distancing markings in stores, and screening customers and employees before they enter the establishments.
Temperature checks aren't mandatory at the federal level, but some states require them for high-risk industries such as healthcare and hospitality. Take Delaware as one example: It requires temp checks for high-risk businesses and recommends it for all other enterprises. Meanwhile, Idaho mandates them for restaurants, personal care services, bars, gyms and fitness centers. In other states – such as Colorado, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania – employee temperature checks are required for all open businesses. States that have no requirements on the books about temperature checks include Florida, Hawaii, Georgia, Arkansas and Alaska.
"It's really all over the map as to what's appropriate," said Charley Moore, founder and CEO of Rocket Lawyer. "It has to do with what kind of workplace you are operating in."
Moore pointed to Rocket Lawyer's corporate customers as an example. They will likely implement commonsense measures such as checking employees' temperatures, limiting elevator access, and wearing masks in the office when they reopen. But companies engaging in outdoor activities such as construction have different guidelines, and requiring temperature checks may not be one of them.
Key takeaway: Some states require employee temperature checks for all open businesses. Others only require them for high-risk enterprises such as restaurants and gyms, and a few don't require them at all.
What are the benefits of workplace temperature checks?
The effectiveness of temperature checks alone as a method of screening for the virus is debatable, but there are a few reasons why small business owners should implement temperature checks in the workplace.
It's a requirement in some states.
As discussed above, temperature checks are mandatory for some industries in some states. In other states, they are highly recommended but not required. That doesn't mean you should rely solely on temperature checks as a health check for employees. Rather, they should be part of a screening process that checks employees for specific COVID-19 symptoms.
It gives your staff peace of mind.
Employees want to know they are safe from exposure to the virus in the workplace. Temperature checks, along with other safety measures, can give them that assurance. The last thing you want is for your employees to be leery of coming to work; that will hurt morale, productivity and ultimately your bottom line.
It can protect you from lawsuits.
Employers are expected to keep their workers safe. If they are found to be negligent, they could face fines and other legal troubles. But if you follow all the CDC and government guidelines and employees still get sick, you won't be to blame. [Read related article: What Is COVID-19 Liability Protection, and How Can You Protect Your Business?]
It prevents exposure to the virus and other illnesses.
Checking an employee's temperature won't tell you if they have COVID-19, but it could prevent a sick employee from infecting others.
"If a company is building a COVID-prevention program for the workplace, temperature checks are the least they can do," said Dr. Jonathan Spero, a physician and expert on pandemic preparedness. "Temperature checks are absolutely not foolproof, but they are really a requirement now for employers to bring people back to work."
Key takeaway: Temperature checks help identify ill employees who could spread germs throughout the workplace so you can send them home. This practice reassures employees and customers that you're taking steps to keep them safe, protects you from claims of negligence, and is recommended as a best practice by the CDC and other government agencies.
Will temperature checks of employees make workplaces safe?
The idea behind administering temperature checks is to spot employees who have a fever and could be infected with the coronavirus. If an infrared thermometer shows an employee has a high temperature, the employer will not let them work that day.
The problem with a temperature check is that, alone, it isn't going to tell you if an employee has COVID-19. Many people who are infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic – they never have a cough, let alone a fever. On the flip side, an employee can have a fever and not have COVID-19 or the flu. Sending someone home, no questions asked, costs the business money and harms productivity and potentially morale.
"Temperature measurements are very imprecise," said John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD. "Although fever is a common symptom, people can have COVID and not have a fever, or they can be taking medicines – sometimes unknowingly – that also reduce fever. People can even have other health issues that cause fever. It provides a false sense of security."
Temperature checks alone won't reduce the spread of the virus, but as part of a comprehensive plan, they can reduce the chances of a COVID-19 outbreak in the workplace. The CDC recommends that business owners take the following precautions to keep employees safe:
- Conduct health screenings. An employee health screening for COVID-19 symptoms, including a temperature check, should be part of your plan. Employees will be asked a series of questions about symptoms and subjected to a temperature check before entering the workplace. Alternatively, you may permit employees to perform self-checks at home before starting work.
- Facilitate social distancing. Business owners must ensure that employees can maintain social distancing of 6 feet. That could require installing transparent shields or physical barriers, rearranging desks and seating, and/or staggering shifts to reduce the employees in the office.
- Encourage wearing masks. The CDC recommends that employees wear face coverings at work to protect themselves and others from the virus. If employees have trouble breathing or can't tolerate wearing masks, the CDC says it shouldn't be enforced.
Key takeaway: Temperature checks alone cannot accurately identify infected employees, but they can help reduce risk if combined with other safety precautions. A temperature check should be part of a daily health screening that also checks for specific COVID-19 symptoms. The CDC also recommends implementing social distancing rules in the office and encouraging employees to wear masks.
How should an employee temperature check be administered?
Small business owners need to follow certain steps to take employees' temperatures safely. Here are four guidelines.
1. Decide who gets checked.
There aren't any rules on the books as to which employees should be screened. Some businesses check every employee who walks through the door, while others only screen workers who may have been exposed to the virus. Some businesses also check the temperatures of customers and visitors.
2. Decide when and where to conduct temperature checks.
Temperature checks should be conducted before the employee enters the workplace. Ideally, the temperature checks will take place in a tent outside or in a private room.
Social distancing should be enforced when employees are waiting for their screenings. The person checking temperatures should have no physical contact with the employees.
3. Decide on your testers and tools.
Small business owners have choices as to who will screen their employees. You can assign the task to one or more employees or hire a contractor to handle testing. Some companies have employees take their own temperatures and show the results to a screener, while others use a scanner to record employees' temperatures.
Spero said using a temperature scanner can be an economical method for businesses with a lot of employees to conduct checks.
"It's not cost-effective to hire someone to stick around and take people's temperatures," he said. "You can spend $1,500 for a digital scanner, and it will set off an alarm if somebody goes through and has a temperature."
Buyer beware when shopping for a scanner, though. Not all of them will give you an accurate read. Spero said to go with a thermal scanner that has a high accuracy rate. If a scanner is outside your budget, you can use a non-contact infrared thermometer instead. [Read related article: Your Guide to Using Non-Contact Infrared Thermometers at Work]
4. Make sure safety and privacy protocols are followed.
An important part of implementing a safe screening process is ensuring employees have all the protective gear they need and enforcing social distancing.
Employees administering the temperature checks should be properly trained, given a no-touch thermometer (if you aren't using a scanner), and understand that confidentiality is extremely important. The interaction between the screener and the employee has to be private. It's ideal to do it in a separate room or install a privacy shield.
According to CDC guidelines, any employee who has a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher should be sent home at once and urged to call a doctor. They shouldn't be allowed to return to work until they see a doctor and the symptoms are gone.
Key takeaway: Employers need to create a plan for temperature checks. It's best to screen employees before they enter the workplace and to use a non-contact thermometer or scanner. Make sure your testers are properly trained and have all the necessary personal protective gear.
Should I keep a record of the temperature checks?
Companies must record the screening results, but these records should be handled with great care to protect the privacy of their employees. Before starting your screening process, you need to figure out what information you'll record, how you'll record it and where you'll store it.
Whyte said small business owners should keep the results of the screenings in medical files, not in employees' regular personnel records, and that the screening results shouldn't be shared among co-workers.
Key takeaway: You need to record the results of temperature checks, but you also have to protect employees' data. Keep the results in the employees' medical files, not their personnel records.
What do I do if an employee refuses a temperature check?
If an employee refuses to submit to a COVID-19 screening before entering the workplace, the employer has the right to send them home. In some states and industries, this is a legal requirement.
In March 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance urging employers and employees to follow the CDC guidelines and their state and local public health authorities on how to slow the spread of the coronavirus and protect employees in the workplace. The government agency noted that the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act don't interfere with employers following the CDC's advice, including conducting temperature checks and health screenings.
To reduce complaints from employees, it's a good idea to communicate the intentions of the screening clearly and to pay workers for the time they spend in the screening process. The more transparent you are about the reasoning behind temperature checks, the more likely your employees are to accept the new safety protocol. [Read related article: Conflict Resolution Tips for Handling Difficult Customers During COVID-19]
"I know small businesses want to get back to work and want to do it safely," Moore said. "They need to seek counsel and enact the science-driven polices that the CDC and experts are recommending, which includes masks, social distancing and temperature checks."
Key takeaway: Employers can prevent an employee from working if he or she refuses to submit to a temperature check. To limit complaints, employers should clearly communicate why they are doing temperature checks and pay workers for the screening time.