On June 25, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in consultation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), released joint interim guidance to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 among seafood industry workers who continue to work in either onshore facilities or offshore vessels during the pandemic. These workers are considered part of the “critical infrastructure” and may continue working following potential exposure to SARS-CoV-2, provided they remain asymptomatic, have not tested positive for COVID-19, and “additional precautions are implemented to protect the workers and the community.”
Importantly, the interim guidance highlights that the workers are not exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through the seafood products they handle, but rather through close contact with coworkers and supervisors. The interim guidance details various prevention and control strategies that employers should consider when implementing a COVID-19 response plan during the pandemic. The response plan may differ depending on the size of the operation, whether the factory is onshore or offshore, and the outbreak conditions in the local area or ports. A qualified workplace coordinator should be appointed who will be responsible for assessment and control planning.
- Prevention: Employers should consider implementing a strategy for preventing the introduction of COVID-19 into the worksite (e.g., screening for fever, symptoms of/exposure to COVID-19, requiring workers to self-quarantine for 14 days prior to initial entry to the worksite, testing for SARS-CoV-2 and contact tracing).
- Engineering Controls: Workers should be spaced at least six feet apart and physical barriers such as partitions should be used when possible. Additional clock in/out stations that are spaced apart and touch-free, as well as staggering times for clocking in/out, are recommended.
- Administrative Controls: Employers should promote social distancing among workers. For example, staggering workers’ arrival and departure times and break times or providing additional break areas and restrooms to avoid crowding are recommended. Employers should also review and modify sick leave policies to ensure that ill workers do not come to work. The interim guidance encourages establishing communication systems for employees to alert their supervisors to COVID-19 symptoms or potential exposure to someone who is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19. Additional potential controls include using clean cloth face coverings and multi-step hand sanitizing procedures that are effective for SARS-CoV-2 and conform with Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs).
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Employers should conduct a hazard assessment to determine whether hazards for which workers need PPE are present or are likely to be present. OSHA’s PPE-related standards are described in 21 CFR part 1910, subpart I and generally require employers to provide appropriate PPE if a hazard assessment shows that PPE is necessary to protect workers from hazards identified in the assessment. Employers should determine if PPE is necessary for employees to work safely after considering whether engineering/administrative controls and safe work practices (e.g., social distancing, using cloth face coverings) can effectively mitigate identified hazards. The interim guidance notes that modifying worker interactions should be considered to reduce the need for PPE in light of potential equipment shortages. During the COVID-19 pandemic, seafood processing employers should also consider allowing the voluntary use of filtering facepiece respirators (e.g., N95) for workers, even if respirators are not normally required.
- Employer-Furnished Living Spaces: Employers should ensure that seafood processing workers who live in employer-furnished housing and living quarters and are confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 have dedicated spaces for sleeping, eating and using the bathroom. These areas should also implement enhanced sanitation and cleaning plans. Social distancing should also be supported when seafood processing workers are in shared living spaces.
There are additional measures identified in the Interim Guidance that may be implemented to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 among seafood industry workers who continue to work during the pandemic.
Notably, the interim guidance states that it may be difficult for employers to comply with certain OSHA standards due to the ongoing health emergency, including those standards that require certain types of worker training. Enforcement discretion around completion of training and other provisions in the various standards will be exercised and evaluated based on whether an employer has made a good faith effort to comply with applicable OSHA standards. In situations where compliance was not possible given the ongoing pandemic, it is important that employers ensure that employees are not exposed to hazards from tasks, processes, or equipment for which they were not prepared or trained.