On March 11, 2020, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued new recommendations for employers preparing for COVID-19 in the workplace. After briefly summarizing the symptoms of COVID-19 (mild to severe fever, cough and shortness of breath) and transmission methods (primarily understood to include person-to-person contact and respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes), the guidance provides a number of recommendations for reducing coronavirus exposure in the workplace. The recommendations are as follows.
- Develop an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan. Based on the level of risk associated with an employer’s workplace, individual employees and the local community, employers should create a plan that addresses COVID-19 contingencies. The plan should include how the employer will handle the need for workers to be absent and/or work remotely. The response plan should also consider whether and to what extent the employer should alter its operation levels in light of anticipated supply and demand changes. OSHA notes that consumer demand for products and services associated with infection prevention will increase, while demand for other products and services will probably decrease.
- Implement Basic Prevention Measures. OSHA re-emphasizes the need for employers to implement and encourage best practices for minimizing the spread of COVID-19:
- Provide hand washing areas, tissues and trash cans for employees, customers and the public.
- Encourage sick employees to stay home.
- Minimize non-essential travel.
- Minimize contact between employees, clients and customers where possible (e.g., by replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual ones and installing drive-through windows for customer service where appropriate).
- Discourage employees from sharing phones, desks and other equipment where possible.
- Consider alternatives such as flexible work hours, staggered shifts and telecommuting to increase distance between employees and reduce the number of employees physically present at one time.
- Identify and Isolate Sick Individuals. Employees should self-monitor for symptoms and should know when and to whom they should report if they do get sick. Those who are potentially infectious should be sent home or otherwise physically moved away from other employees, customers and visitors.
- Develop, Implement and Communicate About Workplace Flexibilities and Protections. OSHA emphasized that employers must be flexible and non-punitive with their leave policies to ensure that sick employees do not feel like they must come to work, and that other employees have the flexibility they need to care for sick family members. Employers should not require doctors’ notes for employees who have respiratory illnesses, because medical facilities may be overloaded and not able to provide paperwork in a timely fashion. Each employer should also provide guidance and training to all employees to make sure they are aware of the employer’s policies and plans related to COVID-19, as well as the availability of medical screening and other employee health resources.
- Implement Workplace Controls. OSHA identifies three categories of workplace controls that employers should be considering and implementing: engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment (PPE). Engineering controls are measures that do not rely on employee behavior, such as high-efficiency air filters. Administrative controls include all of the policy measures described above.
Although engineering and administrative controls are preferred, OSHA recognizes that, depending on the workplace, some employers may also need to provide protective equipment. Employers must evaluate the hazards specific to their workplaces in selecting PPE, and should make sure employees know how to properly fit, wear, use, remove and clean it. OSHA notes that employees who are required to work with known or suspected COVID-19 patients must have respirators, and other protective equipment may also be necessary. Although there are no OSHA standards specific to COVID-19, existing safety standards may apply depending on the nature of the employer’s workplace, such as OSHA’s PPE standards and its blood-borne pathogens standard.
The guidance then states that workplace risk of occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can vary from “lower (caution)” to “very high.” Most workplaces will be in the lower- or medium-risk categories, which include work environments that do not require direct contact with individuals known or suspected to have COVID-19. For these categories of jobs, the OSHA guidance reiterates the importance of engineering and administrative controls such as those described above.
Throughout the guidance, OSHA emphasizes the importance of staying up to date on other governmental guidance and best practices, such as the latest guidance issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). OSHA’s guidance also provides links to a number of OSHA standards and other resources.