The U.S. Department of Labor announced Jan. 29 that its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued stronger worker safety guidance recommending what employers should do to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus. The guidance fulfills President Joe Biden’s executive order directing OSHA to release “clear guidance” for employers designed to keep workers safe from COVID-19 exposure.
The guidance, entitled “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace,” details key measures for limiting the spread of COVID-19, including ensuring infected or potentially infected people are not in the workplace, implementing and following physical-distancing protocols, and using surgical masks or cloth face coverings. It also provides guidance on using personal protective equipment, improving ventilation, and maintaining good hygiene and routine cleaning practices. OSHA said that implementing a coronavirus protection program is the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus.
The new guidelines are similar to previously issued COVID-19 safety guidance documents that combined Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and OSHA recommendations.
Most notably, the new guidance includes information on how to conduct a hazard assessment and policies for employee absences that do not penalize potentially infected workers if they remain home. Other elements of the new guidance that had not been emphasized previously on the national level include:
- Communications with workers in a format and language they can understand (non-English languages and American Sign Language);
- Setting up an anonymous process for workers to voice their concerns about COVID-19-related hazards;
- Making COVID-19 vaccinations available at no cost to eligible employees;
- Ensuring that vaccinated employees follow the same protective measures as non-vaccinated employees (e.g., mask-wearing and physically distancing);
- Clarifying additional circumstances that could trigger a close-contact quarantine requirement (i.e., in addition to being within six feet of someone with COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period, employees should be required to quarantine if:
- they provided care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19;
- they had direct physical contact with a person who has COVID-19 (hugged or kissed them);
- they shared eating or drinking utensils with a person who has COVID-19; or
- someone who has COVID-19 sneezed, coughed, or somehow got respiratory droplets on them); and
- Incorporating Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) guidance on improving ventilation in the work environment. Some of the ventilation recommendations are similar to what OSHA previously identified in its guidance on ventilation, such as using HVAC system filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating of 13 or higher. But other new recommendations include keeping systems running longer hours (24/7 if possible) and disabling demand-controlled ventilation. OSHA provides a link to the ASHRAE guidelines for information on these recommendations.
OSHA noted that the guidance is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations for employers. The agency has yet to decide whether it will issue a COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). Biden’s executive order directs that if OSHA decides to issue an ETS, it is required do so by March 15. OSHA also noted that it would be revising its efforts to enforce and develop a National Emphasis Program to target workplaces that have had the highest levels of exposure.
House Subcommittee Launches Probe of Meat Processors: In a related development, the House Oversight Coronavirus Crisis Subcommittee today announced it is launching an investigation into COVID-19 outbreaks at plants operated by three meat processing companies, as well as OSHA’s response during the Trump administration. The subcommittee requested a raft of documents by Feb. 15 from Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS USA, as well as OSHA. In its request to OSHA, the subcommittee alleged that the agency under the Trump administration “failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country,” which led to “preventable infections and deaths.” The panel said it was seeking information from the agency on COVID-19 complaints and investigations overseen by the Trump administration to “swiftly” identify and correct those “shortcomings” in enforcement “to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans.