Coronavirus in the Workplace: Recent OSHA Guidance

Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi PC
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OSHA recently released a guidance document, OSHA 3990-032020, which contains recommendations as well as descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards. Please note these are recommendations, not new legal obligations. The recommendations are advisory in nature and are intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthy work place now and when employees return to work in full force.

Generally, OSHA requires employers to comply with safety and health standards and regulations promulgated by OSHA or by a state with an OSHA approved state plan. In addition, OSHA’s General Duty Clause (Section 5(a)(1)), requires employers to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

OSHA emphasizes it is important for all employers to plan now for COVID-19. This may involve updating plans to address specific exposure risks, sources of exposure, routes of transmission, and another unique characteristics of COVID-19.

OSHA notes in its recent guidance document that additional guidance may be needed as COVID-19 outbreak conditions change and as new information about the virus, its transmission, and impact, becomes available.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides the latest information about COVID-19 and the global outbreak: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov.

The OSHA COVID-19 webpage offers information specifically for workers and employers: www.osha.gov/covid-19.

OSHA recommends in the above noted guidance document certain steps all employers can take to reduce workers’ risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the workplace:

1. Develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan;

2. Prepare to implement basic infection prevention measures (e.g. hand washing, stay at home if sick, respiratory etiquette - covering coughs and sneezes);

3. Develop policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate;

4. Develop, implement and communicate about workplace flexibilities and protections (do not require health care provider’s note for sick employees, implement flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for children and sick family member);

5. Implement workplace controls

i. Engineering controls such as installing high efficiency air filters, increasing ventilation rates and installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards;

ii. Administrative controls – Urging sick workers to stay at home, establishing alternative days or extra shifts, minimizing contact among workers, clients and customers;

iii. Safe work practices – Provide resources that promote personal hygiene such as tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap;

iv. Personal protective equipment (PPE) – Provide gloves, goggles, face shields, masks and respiratory protection, which are selected and based upon the potential hazards to the worker.

6. Follow existing OSHA standards – These standards may apply to protect workers from exposure to an infection with SARS-CoV-2, although OSHA notes in its guidance document that there is no specific OSHA standard covering this exposure.

7. Classifying OSHA exposure to SARS-CoV-2 – Workers’ risk of occupational exposure to the virus during an outbreak may vary from very high (health care workers) to high (health care delivery and support staff, and medical transport workers), medium (workers in contact with general public, schools, retail settings), or lower (caution) (workers with minimum occupational contact with the public or co-workers) risk. The level of risk depends in part on the industry type. To help employers determine the appropriate precaution, OSHA has divided job tasks into the above noted four risk exposure levels, with most American workers likely to fall in the lower exposure risks (caution) or medium exposure risk level.

OSHA recommends that federal, state and local government agencies are the best source of information in the event of an infectious disease outbreak and suggests the following websites for access the most current and accurate information:

OSHA website: www.osha.gov

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website: www.cdc.gov

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health website: www.cdc.gov/niosh

Additionally, all OSHA publications are free at www.osha.gov/publications and www.osha.gov/ebooks. You can also call 1-800-321-6742 to order publications.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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