OSHA Advice Supports Common Sense Approach To Covid-19 In The Workplace


The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a new webpage in early March to address workplace safety concerns surrounding the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.  The OSHA website contains detailed medical information about COVID-19, as well as Hazard Recognition, Control, and Prevention Information. The OSHA webpage also lists the existing OSHA Standards that address employer safety and health obligations when it comes to this new virus.  https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/

OSHA also recently issued a printed brochure entitled "2020 Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19," OSHA 3990-03 2020, which is available through OSHA's local area offices or online.

The OSHA recommendations echo previous guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In short, employees who exhibit common COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath) should consult their healthcare providers for treatment and testing.  Importantly, OSHA states that "most U.S. workers remain at low risk of exposure" to COVID-19.

There is no specific OSHA standard that covers COVID-19. The most relevant OSHA standards that apply to occupational exposure to COVID-19 are the following:

  1. The "General Duty" Clause — 29 USC 654(a), which requires employers to furnish to each employee "employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."
  2. The Personal Protective Equipment (PPF) Standards, 29 CFR 1910, Subpart I, which require employees to wear gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection if certain hazards are present. If employers are required to provide respirators, they must implement a comprehensive respiratory protection program in accordance with that particular standard, 29 CFR 1910.134.
  3. The Bloodborne Pathogens Standard, 29 CFR 1910.1030, which applies to employees who may be exposed to human blood or other potentially infectious materials. Although respiratory secretions that may contain COVID-19 are not covered by this OSHA Standard, OSHA recommends using the Bloodborne Pathogen Standard's guidelines to try to control potential sources of the virus in the workplace.

According to OSHA, all employers should advise their employees to:

  1. Wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use alcohol-based hand rub with at least 60% alcohol.
  2. Avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  3. Avoid close contact with sick people (i.e., stay about 6 feet away, according to the CDC).

For employers with potential occupational exposure, OSHA recommends identifying and isolating suspected cases, and training affected employees on hazard evaluation, control, and protection. The OSHA webpage further provides specific "interim guidance" for the following groups of employers who may have potential exposure to COVID-19: healthcare and death care industries, laboratories, airlines, border protection agencies, and solid waste and wastewater management companies. Of course, OSHA also advises employers whose employees travel for business to closely watch CDC travel advisories for COVID-19, and to avoid unnecessary travel to high-risk areas.

All employers should make sure they have posted all required and updated OSHA materials in their workplaces, including the notice of Workers' Rights and Employers' Responsibilities. If an employer confirms that an employee was infected with COVID-19 in the workplace, that occupational illness must be recorded on the employer's OSHA-300 log. If an employee is admitted to a hospital within 24-hours of the "work-related incident," in this case, the COVID-19 diagnosis, then the employer must report the hospitalization to OSHA.

Finally, when dealing with the threat of employees becoming exposed to or infected by COVID-19 at work, employers should proceed calmly and use common sense.  The novel coronavirus should be taken seriously by employers. But, according to OSHA and most experts, the risk of most employees becoming infected remains very low.

For the answers to more specific questions about COVID-19 in the workplace, contact Arlene Klinedinst or another attorney from the Vandeventer Black Labor and Employment Law Group.

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