OSHA issued guidance earlier in March on preparing workplaces for COVID-19. Much of the document references guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). However, the document does discuss employer obligations to employees when dealing with COVID-19, and how those obligations fit in the OSHA framework.
All employers are subject to the General Duty Clause that requires each employer to furnish to each of its employees safe employment and a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to the employees. (Code of Virginia 40.1-51.1A)The guidance document contains no new mandatory requirements but does remind employers of existing obligations that may apply in dealing with COVID-19. Among the recommendations:
- Develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan.
- Prepare and implement basic infection prevention measures.
- Develop policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate.
- Develop, implement, and communicate about workplace flexibilities and protections.
OSHA points out the best way to control a hazard is to systematically remove it from the workplace, rather than relying on workers to reduce their exposure. When it’s not possible to eliminate the hazard, the most effective protection measures should be used. Listed from most effective to least effective, here are the measures:
- Engineering Controls could include such items as installing high-efficiency air filters, increasing ventilation rates in the work environment, installing physical barriers such as clear plastic sneeze guards or installing a drive-through window for customer service.
- Administrative Controls would include many of the actions recommended by the CDC, such as encouraging sick workers to stay home, minimize contact among workers, clients and customers, discontinuing non-essential travel and training workers who may need personal protective equipment.
- Safe Work Practices are types of Administrative Controls including providing and encouraging the use of tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, alcohol-based rubs containing at least 60% alcohol, requiring hand washing and posting hand washing signs in restrooms.
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) includes such items as gloves, goggles, face shields, face masks, and respiratory protection. OSHA does have standards regarding when PPE must be utilized and guidelines for its use, with some of the more detailed requirements involving the use of respirators.
Finally, OSHA recommends classifying your worker exposure in one of four categories:
- Lower Risk (Caution)
- Very High
Lower Risk (Caution) jobs are those that don’t require contact with people known or suspected to be infected with COVID-19 and do not have frequent close contact (within 6 feet) with the general public. In this category, it generally recommends guidance similar to the CDC.
For Medium Exposure Risk, OSHA recommends adding Engineering Controls such as sneeze guards. Administrative Controls include offering face masks to ill employees and ill customers until they are able to leave the workplace, and steps to limit access to the worksite and minimize face-to-face contact.
High and Very High Exposure Risk workers are almost exclusively in the healthcare industry. For these employees, many Engineering and Administrative Controls and Safe Work Practices are already in place. The CDC is an excellent source of information for additional details.