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El Paso attorney offers legal tips for workers concerned about safety in the workplace

EL PASO, Texas -- As business reopen throughout the Borderland and the the country, the world looks more like it used to. For some, going back to work can feel like a dream come true. For others, it can feel like a nightmare, as they begin to reacclimate towards being close to others and risking exposure to COVID-19.

What can you do if you're too afraid to return?

"An employer can technically enforce their absence policy and say, 'Well, you missed so many days, we're going to fire you," attorney John Valdez said.

Valdez, who focuses on employment law, said employees do have legal rights to a safe workplace. Those rights fall under the OSH Act of 1970.

"An example that I can think of is, you know, a whole group of employees on the assembly line have tested positive. The employer is not providing any PPE (personal protective equipment). They're making them go back to work amongst all the other people that have tested positive. That is an imminent threat, imminent danger. The employee does have a right to refuse to go back to work and he is protected," Valdez said.

Valdez recommends speaking with a supervisor if you feel unsafe and keeping any conversations with supervisors in writing to create a record.

There is some personal responsibility for safety too.

"We know that a close space, especially when there is very little ventilation is a higher risk environment for people to become infected," said Dr. Armando Meza, an infectious disease specialist with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso.

Dr. Meza said that can make masks even more essential.

"Wearing the mask minimizes, it doesn't completely eliminate the risk of passing the infection to other people," Dr. Meza said.

That makes social distancing critical.

As for employers, Valdez recommends they open up a dialogue and communicate with employees about what safety standards are in place.

Any worker who feels like they are in imminent danger can make a complaint to OSHA by calling their hotline 1-800-321-OSHA. Complaints are confidential and employers cannot retaliate against employees for filing them.

Madeline Ottilie

Madeline Ottilie is a reporter on Good Morning El Paso and co-anchors ABC-7 at noon.

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