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In late January 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued updated guidance on mitigating and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.

This guidance is meant to help employers and workers determine appropriate COVID-19 control measures, and to educate employers and workers about the risks of being exposed to or contracting COVID-19 in the workplace.

In this post, we’ll be highlighting the most important aspects of this updated guidance and what employers need to know moving forward. Specifically, we’ll discuss:

  • The Purpose of This New Guidance
  • Guidance Highlights
  • What Next for Employers

To read the new OSHA COVID-19 guidance in its entirety, click here.

The Purpose of This New Guidance

OSHA released this updated guidance with the purpose of helping employers plan their COVID-19 prevention and mitigation strategies. OSHA strongly recommends that employers implement COVID-19 prevention programs in the workplace, especially in industries where employees are unable to work from home. The most effective mitigation strategies engage workers and their union or representatives in strategy development, according to OSHA’s recommendations.

The guidance covers the following:

  • Hazard assessments
  • Measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 (roles of employers and workers and training on COVID-19)
  • Isolation or separation measures of infected workers from the workplace (physical distancing, installing barriers or staying home)
  • Use of personal protective equipment
  • Improvements in ventilation, hygiene and sanitation measures

We’ll discuss some highlights about some of the above topics in the following section.

Guidance Highlights

In this section, we’ve compiled some of the most important points from OSHA’s new guidance, organized into the sections that we explained in the previous section:

Hazard Assessments

Employers should conduct a hazard assessment of their workplaces. According to the new OSHA guidance, the purpose of this is, “…to identify potential workplace hazards related to COVID-19.” The guidance also suggests that, “This assessment will be most effective if it involves workers (and their representatives) because they are often the people most familiar with the conditions they face.”

Isolation or Separation Measures of Infected Workers from the Workplace

The OSHA guidance strongly recommends that employers do everything they can to minimize the negative impact of quarantine and isolation on infected workers. Specifically, they suggest:

  • Allow them to telework or work in an area isolated from others, when possible. If not possible, allow workers to use paid sick leave.
  • Consider implementing paid leave policies to reduce infection risk for everyone in your workplace.
  • Remember that The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provides certain employers 100% reimbursement (primarily through tax credits) to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. This option will remain through March 31, 2021.

Use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

In the updated guidance, OSHA acknowledges that not every industry can allow employees to work from home. In many industries, the only way for employers to perform their job responsibilities is to be at work in person. In this case, the use of PPE is necessary. Specific guidance related to employer provision of PPE includes:

  • Determine what PPE is necessary to adequately protect your employees.
  • Provide all PPE, if necessary, including respirators, face shields, protective gowns, and gloves, to the workers at no cost.
  • Make sure to provide PPE in accordance with relevant OSHA standards and other industry-specific guidance. Later in this post, we’ll explain where you can find industry-specific guidance.
  • Understand that there are instances in which PPE is not required under OSHA standards or other industry-specific guidance. Some workers may have a legal right to PPE as a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In other cases, workers may want to use it if they are still concerned about their personal safety (for example, if a family member is at higher-risk for severe illness, wearing a face shield in addition to a face covering as an added layer of protection). Employers should encourage and support voluntary use of PPE in these circumstances.

Improvements in Ventilation, Hygiene and Sanitation Measures

In addition to PPE, providing resources to help your employees maintain good personal hygiene is important to help them mitigate the risk of being infected with COVID-19. Specific recommendations include:

  • Provide tissues and no-touch trash cans.
  • Provide soap and warm or tepid water in the workplace in fixed worksites.
  • Place touchless hand sanitizer stations in multiple convenient locations throughout the office.
  • Provide workers with time to wash their hands often with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds) or to use hand sanitizer.
  • Place informational posters that encourage hand hygiene and physical distancing to help stop the spread of COVID-19 at the entrance to your workplace and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen. Be sure to include versions of the poster in different languages.
  • Promote personal health monitoring and good personal hygiene, including hand washing and good respiratory etiquette.
  • The supplies necessary to carry out each of the above hygiene recommendations should be provided at no cost to employees.

Other Measures to Limit the Spread of COVID-19

In addition to everything listed above, OSHA has recommended the following best practices to consider in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Visit OSHA’s updated website for more information about these recommendations.

  • Assignment of a workplace coordinator. 
  • Identification of where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work. 
  • Identification of a combination of measures that will limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, in line with the principles of the hierarchy of controls.
  • Consideration of protections for workers at higher risk for severe illness through supportive policies and practices. 
  • Establishment of a system for communicating effectively with workers in a language they understand.
  • Educate and train workers on your COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in a language they understand.
  • Isolating workers 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 that occur in the workplace.
  • Implementing protections from retaliation and setting up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns about COVID-19-related hazards.
  • Making a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available at no cost to all eligible employees.
  • Not distinguishing between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not.

Industry Specific Guidance

OSHA has published a separate webpage with guidance for specific industries (click here to access this page). Some specific industries that are included are:

  • Airline Operations
  • Construction
  • Dentistry
  • Food Manufacturing and Processing
  • Laboratories
  • Manufacturing
  • Oil and Gas Operations
  • Pharmacies
  • Retail
  • Waste Management

Many other industries are included on the website, so be sure to take a look to see what is recommended for you and your employees.

What Next for Employers?

Keep in mind that OSHA will continue to update the guidance over time as new developments arise. OSHA fully intends to include additional situational and industry-specific guidance as we learn more about COVID-19 moving forward.

Employers should review this recent and any future guidance carefully and implement any new recommendations as applicable. Employers should consider assigning someone on their staff to regularly monitor the OSHA website for any changes in COVID-19 best practices and standards.

As we mentioned in the previous section, OSHA has published many industry-specific recommendations. Business leaders are strongly encouraged to review the specific guidelines that OSHA has provided for their industries.

Key Takeaways

OSHA has issued important updated COVID-19 guidelines for employers. These guidelines can be summarized into the following themes:

  • Hazard assessments
  • Measures to limit the spread of COVID-19
  • Isolation or separation measures of infected workers from the workplace (physical distancing, installing barriers or staying home)
  • Use of personal protective equipment
  • Improvements in ventilation, hygiene and sanitation measures
  • Industry specific guidelines.

Employers should carefully review the specific details of this guidance, which we’ve summarized in this post and are also available by clicking here. Employers should also consider assigning someone on their staff to regularly check back on OSHA’s website for further COVID-19 prevention guidelines. 

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