The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidelines for employers in the wake of the global COVID-19 outbreak.
The purpose of the guidance issued on March 9, entitled Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, is to underscore the continued prevention, mitigation and reporting procedures necessary to protect employees from the spread of coronavirus in the workplace. The guidelines provide for increased safety precautions for workers in industries specifically susceptible to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Principally, OSHA is concerned with employers identified as experiencing increased vulnerability to COVID-19 exposure: healthcare, deathcare, laboratories, airline, border protection, solid waste and wastewater management operations, and business requiring international travel to areas with ongoing, person-to-person transmission of the virus. Most working in these fields should already have written procedures and policies in place governing safety and reporting mechanisms; however, increased compliance is the only way to increase safety of employees in the workplace.
- Risk Assessment — OSHA recommends that each employer conduct an inquiry into its specific workplace exposure risk for COVID-19 as low, medium, high or very high. While employers are encouraged to adopt policies and procedures as related to their level of risk, all employers are required to implement an infectious disease policy, promote proper hygiene and disinfecting practices, develop policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people (when appropriate), communicate about workplace flexibilities and available protections, and implement workplace controls to prevent against the spread of COVID-19.
- Infectious Disease Policy — Safeguards against COVID-19 must be included in any infectious disease preparedness and response plan. Sources of contact with disease, including customer and public contacts, and sick co-workers, must be identified along with mitigation procedures such as personal protective equipment, disinfecting supplies and environmental changes (social distancing).
- Recording/Reporting — Unlike other common viruses (such as the common cold and flu), novel coronavirus cases, once confirmed, must be recorded as part of the employer’s OSHA log. The following are to be recorded: (1) confirmed cases of COVID-19 as acknowledged through the Centers for Disease Control, (2) the case is work-related, meaning an event or exposure in the workplace either caused or contributed to the resulting condition, and (3) the case involves one or more of the general recording criteria. Hospitalizations and fatalities from a recorded contact (i.e., nurse or EMT that has been exposed, and it leads to hospitalization or death) are to be reported within 24 hours and eight hours, respectively.
- Training — The guidance recommends training employees on how and when to use protective clothing and equipment. This includes proper use, when to wear it and how to remove and discard of it (or decontaminate it) appropriately. The training expectations in very high risk work environments (i.e., hospitals and doctor’s offices) will require increased vigilance with respect to separation of patients, use of personal protective equipment, and isolation when necessary. Minimal levels of staff are to be used with patients identified for isolation.
In plain English, the following are practical steps employers should take:
- Post hand washing signs in restrooms.
- Encourage sick employees to stay home.
- Separate sick employees and/or employees that self-report: illness, close contact with another individual with COVID-19, or suspected contact with COVID-19 through travel.
- Make sanitary items available to employees, including tissues, hand sanitizer, soap and water available in the workplace.
- Perform cleaning in the workplace on a regular basis including high frequency and commonly used surfaces including doorknobs, keyboards, desks, and lunch areas.
- Limit work travel and advise employees of recommended travel restrictions and threat level(s).
- Provide employees with the opportunity to work remotely, stagger shifts and limit in-person meetings.
- Be aware of workers’ concerns about pay, leave and safety and communicate employer expectations and available benefits to employees.
Plunkett Cooney is available and ready to help your company with COVID-19 and any related concerns during this stressful time. Please contact us anytime with questions.
 OSHA has also issued Temporary Enforcement Guidance, which is solely focused on use of face piece respirators by healthcare providers (accessed March 14, 2020, as issued). OSHA will exercise enforcement discretion in not citing employers who suspend annual fit testing of N95 respirators to preserve the supply of such respirators as long as there is a good faith effort to comply with the other requirements of 29 CFR § 1910.134.
 As of Thursday, March 19, 2020 the United States Department of State has issued a Level 4: Do Not Travel warning for all international flights out of the United states (accessed March 19, 2020).
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