As New Mexico works to reopen the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a safe environment for workers and customers is critical. Wearing masks and enforcing social distancing, in addition to other measures recommended by health experts, will slow the spread of COVID and get more New Mexicans back to work. The state Environment Department, through its Occupational Health and Safety Bureau, and Department of Workforce Solutions are partnering to ensure these measures are implemented in the workplace. Workplace safety plays an essential role in getting people back to work—and keeping them there.
It is so important that employers use effective strategies like wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing, in addition to the state's other COVID-safe practices, to make their places of business as safe as possible.
Wearing masks works. The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that if 95% of people wore masks, virus transmission could be slowed by 50%, saving 33,000 lives. Why? COVID-19 spreads though water droplets emitted when you breathe, speak, sneeze or cough. Wearing a cloth mask protects everyone around you if you are infected—whether you have symptoms or not—by limiting the distance traveled by these droplets. Any staff in a public place, like a retail lobby or a front desk, should always wear a mask while working.
Social distancing works. Since the virus spreads mainly through breathing, when you stay away from others you are less likely to get the virus from someone else or spread it if you are infected. Any employees showing symptoms of COVID (cough, fever, chills) should go home so they don't breathe on others and contact the New Mexico Department of Health to get a free COVID test. Areas where people congregate, like a supermarket checkout line, should have clear markings allowing customers to stand at least six feet apart
Hand washing works. A combination of soap, which breaks the virus apart, and rubbing your hands together to pry viruses off, is very effective in preventing infection and transmission. Hand-washing facilities and sanitizer should be readily available to staff for constant use.
We want to help employers and employees make workplaces as safe as possible, and we've created a number of resources and programs to do just that. New Mexico's COVID-Safe Practices are available at cv.nmhealth.org. The NM Safe Certified program, led in part by the Tourism Department, supports employers by providing training and access to supplies. More information is available at https://nmsafecertified.org/.
Any worker who believes their employer is operating in an unsafe manner can report their concerns to the New Mexico OSHA program at Complaints.OSHA@state.nm.us. If an inspection finds that employers are violating COVID-safe practices, the employer may be subject to fines of over $131,000. Additionally, workers who voluntarily leave their jobs can only get unemployment benefits if they show a good reason. The Department of Workforce Solutions will give those who chose to leave and can document that their workplaces are not following COVID-safe practices benefits.
To increase compliance with these vital practices, the Departments of the Environment and Workforce Solutions are partnering to hire over 20 new OSHA investigators. Hiring will start later in July and more information may be found at www.spo.state.nm.us.
As Gov. Lujan Grisham says, how much and how quickly our state opens up depends on all of us. If we wear masks, socially distance, wash our hands and implement workplace safety practices for employees, we can get more people back to work faster while keeping ourselves, our coworkers, our friends, our families, and our neighbors safe.
James Kenney is the Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department
Bill McCamley is the Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions