By Jess McCluer, Vice President of Safety and Regulatory Affairs
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Oct. 5 revised its COVID-19 guidance by acknowledging that the virus sometimes can spread through airborne particles that can “linger in the air for minutes to hours” and among people who are more than six feet apart.
In addition, CDC said that in some circumstances, individuals can become infected by airborne transmission after the infectious person already has left the area. While CDC maintains that the principal mode by which people are infected with COVID-19 is through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying infectious virus, the agency’s concept of “respiratory droplets” has evolved to include both “larger droplets” and “smaller droplets and particles.”
CDC’s new two-page guidance states that airborne transmission of COVID-19 sometimes can occur under “certain conditions…within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation.” But CDC’s guidance states that available data indicate it is much more common for the virus that causes COVID-19 to spread through close contact with an infected person than through airborne transmission. Conditions under which airborne transmission of COVID-19 has been observed to occur include within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation in which an infected person produced respiratory droplets for an extended period of time, such as when the infected person is breathing heavily. Other circumstances in which airborne transmission has been observed include prolonged exposure in an area with poor ventilation or following expiratory exertion (e.g., singing or exercising). Overall, CDC still views the primary mode of transmission to be close contact with an infected person (i.e., direct contact within less than six feet).
As a result, CDC maintains that the current preventive safety measures when in close contact are the most effective at preventing the spread of disease, including six-foot social distancing, frequent hand-washing, use of cloth face coverings or masks, isolating when sick, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently-touched or potentially contaminated surfaces. Yet, CDC also notes that “touching surfaces is not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads.”
CDC also added the directive to “avoid crowded indoor spaces and ensure indoor spaces are properly ventilated by bringing in outdoor air as much as possible. In general, being outdoors and in spaces with good ventilation reduces the risk of exposure to infectious respiratory droplets,” the agency said.” Further, CDC stressed the importance of having effective ventilation in enclosed spaces to prevent and minimize the potential for COVID-19 transmission.
Oregon OSHA Moves Forward with COVID-19 Temporary Standard
In July, Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that it was in the process of developing its own COVID-19 safety standards. The agency is developing both a temporary rule for COVID-19 response measurers and a broader and permanent infectious disease and prevention rule. Oregon OSHA envisions the COVID-19 temporary rulemaking and permanent rule as two essentially different projects both in nature and scope.
For the initial temporary rulemaking, Oregon OSHA intends to adopt an emergency rule that sets requirements to protect against workplace exposures to COVID-19, with distinct but complementary requirements for workplaces in the healthcare and general industries. In the near final draft COVID-19 Temporary Standard, released by Oregon OSHA on Sept. 25, the agency identifies proposed COVID-19 requirements that will apply to all workplaces including:
- Strict physical distancing requirements, under which employers must ensure that six feet of distance is maintained between “all individuals in the workplace” by redesigning the workplace and establishing administrative controls.
- Requiring use of masks, face shields, and face coverings by all individuals in the workplace, with limited exceptions (, children under the age of 5, while eating or drinking).
- Enhanced sanitation measures, such that all common areas accessible to employees and high-touch surfaces are cleaned and sanitized every 24 hours.
- Increased communication on COVID-19 safety protocols through required signage postings, employee communications and training.
- Implementing COVID-19 incident-response measures, including contact tracing procedures, notification processes to affected employees, medical removal of employees for quarantine and isolation when necessary, COVID-19 testing in certain circumstances, and protocols for coordinating with the Oregon Health Authority or local public health department when necessary.
Separately, Oregon OSHA’s draft COVID-19 Temporary Standard, if adopted as is, would require employers to conduct an exposure risk assessment as prescribed in the rule and designate at least one individual per establishment to act as a “distancing officer” responsible for implementing the employer’s COVID-19 safety protocols and procedures.
Following Oregon OSHA’s release of this draft, the agency’s rulemaking documents indicate that a further revised draft and complete set of appendices will be released for final review toward the end of October 2020, with plans to adopt the temporary rule with immediate effect by the end of October or early November 2020.
Once Oregon OSHA has finalized its COVID-19 Temporary Standard, the agency said it will focus its attention on a permanent Airborne Infectious Disease Rule. Oregon OSHA expects to release the pre-proposal draft in late November 2020. The permanent rule will be subject to a formal notice and comment period beginning in November 2020 and extending through March 2021.
If Oregon OSHA’s timeline proceeds as scheduled, the agency will have a COVID-19 Temporary Standard in place by the end of this month and a permanent Airborne Infectious Disease Rule in place sometime in 2021, with a potential effective date in April 2021.
Both the temporary and permanent rulemaking initiatives present significant implications for Oregon employers, with new administrative requirements, compliance obligations, and considerations for workplace design and operations.