On January 29, 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released new guidance on best practices to mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. This guidance follows President Biden’s January 21, 2021 Executive Order calling for OSHA to issue new COVID-19-related workplace safety guidance. Looking ahead, the EO also called for OSHA to consider whether any COVID-19 emergency temporary standards (such as mandating masks in the workplace) are necessary, and if so, to issue standards by March 15.
The new OSHA guidance reminds employers of their responsibility to provide safe and healthy working conditions to their employees and advises that the most effective way to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace is to implement a COVID-19 prevention program. The guidance emphasizes that workers and their unions or representatives should play a role in the development and implementation of their workplace’s COVID-19 prevention program.
The guidance sets forth the elements of an effective COVID-19 prevention program:
- Assigning a workplace coordinator to serve as a representative for COVID-19 issues on the employer’s behalf.
- Completing a “hazard assessment” to identify where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work.
- Identifying measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, including but not limited to the following measures:
a. Requiring physical distancing in communal work areas;
b. Installing barriers where physical distancing is not possible;
c. Providing workers with face coverings, such as cloth or surgical masks;
d. Improving the ventilation systems in the workplace and leaving outside doors and windows open;
e. Using personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly when the above measures cannot be implemented;
f. Providing hygiene supplies such as tissues, no-touch trash cans, soap, hand sanitizer, and posters that encourage good hygiene practices; and
g. Implementing a system for routine cleaning and disinfecting.
- Implementing protective policies and practices for workers at higher risk for severe illness, such as additional protections for older adults and those with underlying medical conditions.
- Establishing a system for communicating with workers, including communicating in a language they understand, to report possible COVID-19 exposures and hazards in the workplace.
- Educating and training workers on COVID-19 policies in a language and format they understand.
- Instructing workers who have been exposed or infected by COVID-19 to stay home and quarantine.
- Minimizing the negative impact of quarantining on workers by allowing workers to telework or work distanced from others, if possible. If this is not possible, by implementing paid leave policies.
- Isolating workers who present symptoms of COVID-19 at work, including sending home infected or potentially infected workers.
- Following enhanced cleaning and disinfection recommendations when people who have been exposed or infected with COVID-19 have been at the workplace. OSHA recommends following CDC cleaning and disinfecting recommendations.
- Providing workers with guidance on how to get screened or tested for COVID-19.
- Reporting COVID-19 infections and deaths on the OSHA Form 300 log.
- Implementing an anonymous process for workers to report COVID-19-related concerns and protecting workers from retaliation for voicing such concerns.
- Providing the COVID-19 vaccine(s) to workers at no cost.
- Ensuring all workers continue to follow the workplace’s COVID-19 procedures and policies, whether or not they have been vaccinated.
- Continuing to follow other OSHA standards that are relevant to preventing COVID-19.
In its guidance, OSHA specifies that this new guidance is intended to inform most non-healthcare workplaces of methods to mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID-19, emphasizing that there is separate guidance applicable to healthcare (CDC healthcare guidance) and emergency response (CDC emergency response guidance) settings. OSHA also recommends that in addition to this new guidance, workplaces continue to follow its industry specific guidance, such as guidance for nursing homes and long term care facilities, healthcare facilities, and restaurants.
OSHA previously released guidance in March 2020 that grouped workplaces into four categories of COVID-19 exposure risk, including Very High, High, Medium, and Lower risk. The guidance recommended measures to protect the health of workers within each risk category. You can read LR’s summary of this guidance here.