By Guy Burdick
On January 29, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued stronger workplace health and safety guidance for protecting employees from COVID-19 exposures. On January 21, President Joe Biden ordered OSHA to issue updated guidance within two weeks and consider establishing an emergency temporary standard (ETS) for workplace COVID-19 protections by March 15.
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a COVID-19 pandemic. The disease is a recognized workplace health hazard, creating employer obligations to protect employees.
The guidance includes a recommendation to provide COVID-19 vaccination at no cost to employees. Other essential elements of a prevention program detailed in the newly issued guidelines include:
- Conducting a workplace hazard assessment;
- Identifying control measures to limit the spread of the virus;
- Adopting policies for employee absences that don’t punish workers so that potentially infected workers are encouraged to remain at home;
- Ensuring that coronavirus policies and procedures are clearly communicated to both English- and non-English-speaking workers; and
- Implementing protections from retaliation for workers who raise coronavirus-related concerns.
“OSHA is updating its guidance to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus and improve worker protections so businesses can operate safely and employees can stay safe and working,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick said in an agency statement.
Key measures offered in the guidance for limiting the spread of COVID-19 include separating and sending home infected or potentially infected people in the workplace, implementing physical distancing, installing barriers where physical distancing cannot be maintained, and using face coverings. The guidance also covers use of personal protective equipment (PPE), when necessary; providing hand-washing supplies for good hygiene; routine cleaning and disinfection; and ventilation improvements (in accordance with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic).
OSHA’s updated guidance recommends that employers take the following steps:
- Assign a workplace coordinator who will be responsible for all COVID-19 issues.
- Perform a thorough hazard assessment that involves workers and their representatives to identify potential workplace hazards related to COVID-19.
- Identify precautions in line with the hierarchy of controls: elimination, substitution, engineering controls like installing physical barriers, workplace administrative policies, and PPE.
- Consider enhanced protections, such as telework or work in less densely, better ventilated facilities, for workers at higher risk for severe illness, such as older adults and those who have serious underlying medical conditions putting them at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
- Educate and train workers on COVID-19 symptoms and hazards, as well as the policies and procedures established and implemented for their protection.
- Isolate workers who show symptoms at work, and instruct infected or potentially infected workers to isolate or quarantine at home.
- Perform enhanced cleaning and disinfection after people suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 have been in the workplace.
- Provide workers with information and guidance on COVID-19 screening and testing, following state or local guidance for screening and viral testing in workplaces, and make a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available at no cost to all eligible employees.