On January 29, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published updated guidance on mitigating the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace was issued in compliance with Executive Order 13999, which was signed by President Biden on January 21.
Biden ordered OSHA to issue revised guidance within two weeks, with a stated goal of reducing the risk of employees contracting COVID-19. The guidance is intended for most workplace settings outside of healthcare and advises employers to identify the risks of employees becoming infected. Employers are also encouraged to determine and implement specific measures to reduce that risk.
Physical Distancing & Barriers
Employers are advised to increase the physical space between workers and customers, and to limit the number of people in one place simultaneously. OSHA suggests several possible ways to do this:
- Rearranging workspaces to accommodate physical distancing
- Rescheduling work activities to reduce the number of people required to be present at the same time
- Putting up barriers such as plexiglass to block face-to-face pathways
Face Coverings & PPE
All employees and customers should be required to wear face coverings in the workplace. Employers should provide masks or PPE at no cost to employees, except for work activities that require the use of a respirator. Face coverings should consist of at least two layers of tightly woven breathable fabric with no exhalation vents.
For employees who are unable to wear face coverings, reasonable accommodations may include increased physical distancing, barriers, or telecommuting.
Cleaning & Hygiene
Employers should make hygiene supplies readily available. These include tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand sanitizer, soap, and warm water. Employees should have ample time for handwashing, and posters promoting good hygiene and respiratory etiquette should be displayed.
Routine cleaning and disinfection measures should include high-touch areas like workstations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, and doorknobs. Employees should refrain from sharing computers, pens, and other objects. When an item must be shared, appropriate cleaning and disinfecting should take place. Employers may provide disinfecting wipes for this purpose.
Enhanced cleaning and disinfecting measures should be implemented after people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases have been present in the workplace.
The Role of Employees
OSHA offers several ways employers can encourage employees to take an active role in keeping the workplace COVID-free.
- Communication: Make policies and procedures available to all employees in clear, understandable language. Ask workers to report possible symptoms, exposures or hazards related to COVID-19.
- Training: Educate all employees on basic facts about COVID-19 and how to implement prevention measures. Track which employees have received training, and ensure that all workers understand their rights and responsibilities.
- High-risk workers: Consider reasonable modifications for employees over 65 and those with health conditions that put them at risk for severe disease.
- Sick employees: Require workers who are infected or potentially infected to stay home. Implement non-punitive absence policies to discourage employees from coming to work when they may be at risk of infecting others.
- Suspected COVID-19 cases: If a worker develops symptoms or has likely been exposed to the virus, immediately separate them from coworkers and send them home as soon as possible. If a worker is under quarantine, encourage teleworking or offer leniency during their required absence.
- Vaccines: Employers should provide COVID-19 vaccines at no cost to eligible employees. Do not distinguish between vaccinated and non-vaccinated employees when implementing safety measures, as it is not yet known whether vaccinated persons can still transmit the virus to others.
- Retaliation protections: Set up an anonymous system for employees to report virus-related concerns at work. Remember, the OSH Act prohibits employers from firing or discriminating against employees who file complaints.
OSHA provides further steps for employers to follow when implementing a workplace COVID-19 policy.
- Assign a workplace coordinator to oversee COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
- Comply with all state and local requirements for screening and testing employees.
- Record and report confirmed work-related COVID-19 infections and deaths.
- Comply with all applicable OSHA standards pertaining to the use of PPE, respiratory protection, sanitation, protection from bloodborne pathogens, and employee access to medical and exposure records.
Employers must also comply with all safety and health standards mandated by the OSH Act, as well as additional standards issued by OSHA. The General Duty Clause of the OSH Act requires employees to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause serious injury or death.
Finally, President Biden issued Executive Order 13999 on January 21, 2021, in which he directed OSHA to consider and possibly issue new emergency temporary standards by March 15. To date, OSHA has not issued any new standards; however, McMahon Berger will continue to monitor this situation and provide updates as they occur.
Employers are advised to continue to follow new developments related to the pandemic. These include the increasing availability of vaccines, as well as evolving federal, state, and local policies pertaining to the virus.
If you need assistance with developing, implementing, and updating a COVID-19 policy for your business, contact McMahon Berger to speak with one of our experienced employment and labor attorneys.