OSHA Issues New Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace
Last week, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued new guidance to help employers and employees identify risks of being exposed to and/or contracting COVID-19 in the workplace and to assist in determining appropriate control measures. The guidance is advisory in nature and does not impose new legal requirements on employers, but provides additional information that may be helpful to employers in their efforts to provide a safe and healthful workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The guidance recommends implementing a workplace COVID-19 prevention program as the most effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The guidance includes multiple recommendations for COVID-19 prevention programs and emphasizes that such programs should engage employees and their representatives in the programs development and implementation at every step. OSHAs recommendations for prevention programs include:
- Assigning a workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 issues;
- Identifying where and how employees might be exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace, including through a hazard assessment with employee input;
- Identifying measures that will limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, consistent with the principles of the hierarchy of controls (which labels and prioritizes controls in the following order from most to least effective: elimination/substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls and safe work practices, and personal protective equipment);
- Considering protections for employees at higher risk for severe illness through supportive policies and practices;
- Establishing a system for communicating effectively with employees and in a language they understand;
- Educating and training employees on COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in a language they understand;
- Instructing employees who are infected or potentially infected to stay home and isolate or quarantine;
- Minimizing the negative impact of quarantine and isolation on employees;
- Isolating employees who show symptoms at work;
- Performing enhanced cleaning and disinfection after people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 have been in the facility;
- Providing guidance on screening and testing;
- Recording and reporting COVID-19 infections and deaths;
- Implementing protections from retaliation and setting up an anonymous process for employees to voice concerns about COVID-19 related hazards;
- Making a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available at no cost to all eligible employees; and
- As to required protective measures, not distinguishing between employees who are vaccinated and those who are not.
The guidance also notes that all of OSHAs standards that apply to protecting employees from infection remain in place, including requirements related to personal protective equipment, respiratory protection, sanitation, protection from bloodborne pathogens, and employee access to medical and exposure records. The guidance emphasizes that, although there is no OSHA standard specific to COVID-19, employers are still legally required to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from recognized hazards that can cause serious physical harm or death.
In addition to staying up to date on the evolving guidance provided by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, employers should also make sure to follow any recommendations from public health authorities and labor and industry agencies at the state or local level, which may have more stringent requirements.