Are you an “essential” worker? If so, is your workplace providing you with the protection that you need during the COVID-19 outbreak? Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of employees have filed workplace safety complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA has published guidance that groups workplaces into four categories of COVID-19 exposure risk, and recommends measures that employers can take to protect the health of workers on-site under these perilous circumstances.

However, in an editorial published on April 21, 2020, the New York Times Editorial Board took OSHA to task for not attaching enforcement mechanisms to any of these standards, charging that the agency “has taken a largely hands-off approach to the pandemic.”  Although OSHA made Centers for Disease Control workplace standards legally enforceable during the H1N1 outbreak, it has not done so during the current crisis. The Times criticizes OSHA for a priority guidance, issued to local enforcement offices on April 13, that advised OSHA officials to exercise discretion in conducting inspections in favor of healthcare facilities — in other words, essential workers at grocery stores, pharmacies, food processing centers, and large retailers like WalMart may have more difficulty attracting the attention of OSHA inspectors if their employers fail to respect the agency’s own recommended standards. 

OSHA divides workplaces into four categories of risk exposure: Very High, High, Medium, and Lower risk.

High and Very High-Risk Workplaces

Workers at Very High risk are (i) doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers who perform aerosol-generating procedures, such as intubation, cough induction, bronchoscopies, or some dental procedures and exams; (ii) healthcare or laboratory workers who collect or handle specimens from known or suspected COVID-19 patients; and (iii) workers performing autopsies on the bodies of known or suspected COVID-19 patients.

Workers at High Risk are (i) healthcare workers whose jobs require them to enter the same rooms as known or suspected COVID-19 patients; and (ii) operators of medical transport vehicles and mortuary workers who contribute to preparing the bodies of known or suspected COVID-19 patients for burial or cremation.

OSHA recommends that healthcare facilities protect High and Very High risk workers by implementing engineering controls including: (i) installing air-handling systems; (ii) housing known or suspected COVID-19 patients in airborne illness isolation rooms (AIIR); and (iii) using isolation rooms for aerosol-generating activity involving known or suspected COVID-19 patients, as well as postmortem investigations of the bodies of known or suspected COVID-19 patients.

OSHA also recommends administrative controls including: (i) developing policies with the goal of reducing exposure, such as grouping COVID-19 patients in single rooms where isolation rooms are not available; (ii) posting signs asking patients and their family members to report any symptoms of respiratory illness as soon as they enter the facility; (iii) posting signs requesting that patients and their families use disposal masks in the facility; and (iv) providing COVID-19-specific training to workers.

OSHA recommends personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers in the Very High and High risk categories including gloves, a gown, a face shield or goggles, and a mask or respirator, and that workers who work closely with known or suspected COVID-19 patients use respirators.

Medium Risk Workplaces

OSHA categorizes workers in the Medium risk category as those workers in any job where the workers must be within six feet or less of people who may possibly be infected with COVID-19, but who are not known or suspected patients. Grocery store and pharmacy workers, for example, are in the Medium risk category.

OSHA recommends administrative controls including: offering masks to employees and customers, or, if none are available, reusable face shields; limiting access to the facility, i.e., permitting only certain numbers of customers in at a given time; and considering strategies such as installing drive-through windows that could minimize face-to-face contact between customers and employees.

OSHA also recommends engineering controls including the installation of physical barriers, such as plastic sneeze guards.

OSHA acknowledges that the PPE needs of Medium risk workers may vary according to the nature of their work, but that employers should conduct a hazard assessment and provide PPE in accordance with it. Examples of the types of PPE that Medium workers may require, include gloves, a gown, a face mask, a face shield, or goggles.

Lower Risk Workplaces

OSHA categorizes workers in the Lower risk category if they require contact with neither known or suspected COVID-19 patients, nor with members of the general public. While OSHA does not recommend PPE or engineering controls for workers in this category, OSHA does encourage employers to implement administrative controls including monitoring public health communications about COVID-19 and collaborating with employees to find the most efficient possible ways to communicate with them about risks of exposure to the disease.