On January 26, 2021, OSHA issued what it characterized as "stronger worker safety guidance" in an effort to help both employers and workers implement COVID-19 protection programs and better identify risks that may lead to exposure and contraction.
New COVID-19 guidance. OSHA’s new guidance, "Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace" provides updated guidance and recommendations, and outlines existing safety and health standards. The biggest takeaway from the new guidance is that implementing a coronavirus protection program is the best way to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19. To that end, the new guidance recommends several essential elements in an employer prevention program:
- Conduct a hazard assessment;
- Identify control measures to limit the spread of the virus;
- Adopt policies for employee absences that don’t punish workers as a way to encourage potentially infected workers to remain home;
- Ensure that coronavirus policies and procedures are communicated to both English and non-English speaking workers; and
- Implement protections from retaliation for workers who raise coronavirus-related concerns.
Limit risk by continuing distancing and wearing masks. The guidance details key measures for limiting coronavirus’s spread, 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 use of personal protective equipment, improving ventilation, good hygiene, and routine cleaning.
It reminds all employers that workers who are vaccinated must continue to follow protective measures, such as wearing a face covering and remaining physically distant, because at this time, there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines prevent transmission of the virus from person-to-person.
What’s different about the new guidance? The new guidance calls for the involvement of workers in development and implementation. It also covers all workers, not just some workers, meaning that the health and safety of some workers is not perceived as more important than that of others. The language of the guidance is also stronger, now phrased in what the employer or worker "should do," instead of the weaker "consider" doing, used in earlier guidance.
Involving workers. The guidance itself states that the "most effective COVID-19 prevention programs engage workers and their representatives in the program's development and implementation at every step," and lists the elements that a program should include.
Telework and paid leave. Another section of the guidance addresses how employers can minimize the negative impact of quarantine and isolation on workers. "When possible, allow them to telework, or work in an area isolated from others," and if that is not possible, "allow workers to use paid sick leave, if available, or consider implementing paid leave policies to reduce risk for everyone at the workplace," the guidance states.
Emergency standards may be coming. What is the same about the new guidance is that OSHA does not enforce guidance; it enforces standards and the General Duties clause of the OSH Act. However, there is a regulatory review underway, and an emergency temporary standard is under consideration to deal with the ongoing pandemic.
Source: CCH/Wolters Kluwer