Employers can access guidance from OSHA on how to keep employees safe during the coronavirus — and learn about important regulations to follow.
The United States Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration has issued a guidance for employers to use in keeping their workplaces safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 32-page pamphlet contains recommendations for employers as well as descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards.
Scott Young, a partner in the Cincinnati office of law firm Thompson Hine, says the federal agency’s issuance of the document is a “significant development.” He says it warns employers that several regulatory standards apply to them while the coronavirus crisis unfolds:
- General duty clause
- Personal protective equipment
- Eye and face protection
- Hand protection
- Sanitation protection
- Hazard communication
“OSHA is essentially telling all of the employers out there that this is how you can make employees safe and there is a regulatory obligation to comply,” Young says.
Young also notes that the guidance functions as a “best practice” for employers, providing them with specific information.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to comply with safety and health standards and regulations promulgated by OSHA, or by a state with an OSHA-approved state plan.
“OSHA is essentially telling all of the employers out there that this is how you can make employees safe and there is a regulatory obligation to comply.”
OSHA standards that may apply
The federal agency notes in the guidance that there is no specific OSHA standard covering exposure to SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, OSHA says). However, OSHA says some requirements already on the books may apply to the coronavirus.
Law firm Thompson Hine issued an alert and noted several OSHA standards that might be relevant, including:
- “General Duty” clause, which requires that employers provide each worker “employment and a place of employment” free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
- “Personal Protective Equipment” (PPE) standards which require using gloves, eye, and face protection and respiratory protection appropriate for protecting employees from exposure. If respirators are necessary to protect workers, employers must implement a comprehensive respiratory protection program.
- “Sanitation” standard which governs sanitation in the workplace.
- “Toxic and Hazardous Substances” standard which deals with employee exposure to bloodborne pathogens and hazard communication, among others.
State standards may apply
State law can also be a factor. “Mini-OSHA” laws in 28 states may have more stringent requirements than federal OSHA regulations, according to the Thompson Hine alert.
The law firm notes that California’s “Aerosol Transmissible Diseases” standard aims to prevent worker illness from infectious diseases that can be transmitted by inhaling air that contains viruses and bacteria.
“While this standard is mandatory for certain healthcare employers in California, OSHA has stated that it may provide useful guidance for protecting other workers exposed to COVID-19,” the law firm says.
OSHA-recommended guidelines all workplaces can follow
The federal agency describes steps that every employer can take to reduce COVID-19 risks:
- Develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan
- Prepare to implement infection prevention measures, including promoting hand-washing and good respiratory etiquette, and encouraging sick workers to stay home
- Develop policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate
- Develop, implement, and communicate about workplace flexibilities and protections
- Implement workplace controls, including administrative controls (changes in work policy or procedures to reduce or minimize exposure to a hazard)
- Follow existing OSHA standards, including the PPE rules
Basic infection prevention measures for employers
OSHA also notes “good hygiene and infection control practices” that employers should implement.
- Encouraging employees to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly
- Stay at home if they are sick
- Cover coughs and sneezes
- Not to use other employees’ office equipment such as phones whenever possible
Minimizing social interaction
- Promoting teleworking
- Replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual communications or conference calls
- Reducing the number of employees at the worksite by staggering shifts or creating alternate work days/new shifts
- Adopting flexible leave policies
- Discontinuing nonessential travel to locations with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks and reducing customer and vendor visits to worksites
- Installing protective devices such as sneeze guards and/or high-efficiency air filters
- Educating employees on COVID-19, including its risk factors
- Taking additional precautions for employees with very high or high risk of exposure to COVID-19 such as those who work at healthcare facilities. Additional precautions can include offering enhanced medical monitoring of those employees and wearing respirators
OSHA has also classified different types of jobs as having “very high, high, medium, or lower exposure risk.” The guidance provides recommendations and responsibilities for employers and workers based on risk.
Very high exposure
Very high exposure jobs carry a high potential for exposure to known or suspected sources of COVID-19. Some examples are medical, postmortem, or laboratory procedures that involve collecting specimens.
Low exposure risk jobs are those that do not require contact with people known to be or suspected of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 or that do not require frequent close contact with the general public.
Young said he thinks OSHA is letting employers know that if they have employees who work in the higher risk categories, then the employer could be subject to a higher compliance standard.
Employer questions and concerns
Young says he’s fielding “a lot of calls” from employers asking about their reporting obligations in instances where an employee has a confirmed case of COVID-19.
Here are different actions to take:
- If an employee develops COVID-19 and it is work-related and requires medical treatment, the employer should report the incident on the OSHA log
- If the work-related COVID-19 diagnosis requires in-patient hospitalization or results in death, then the employer must — by OSHA standards — immediately notify OSHA within 8 hours of death or within 24 hours of in-patient hospitalization. Notification can prompt an OSHA investigation
Young says the guidance — along with OSHA referencing 11 different standards on its website relevant to protecting employees from COVID-19 exposure — provides employers with notice of what OSHA investigators will be looking for when those calls start to come in.
He also notes that OSHA mentioned the hazardous chemical standard in the guidance. Eployers using certain ingredients to keep surfaces disinfected should be aware of the potential hazards associated with use of the cleaning products. In some cases they can be carcinogenic.
OSHA is telling employers to implement appropriate protective controls to avoid employee overexposure to those disinfectants that can be hazardous, Young says.