In an effort to help employers ensure they continue to maintain a safe workplace now that COVID-19 has been classified as a pandemic, OSHA recently issued Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. Given that the situation changes daily as the novel coronavirus is better understood, OSHA has a website that employers should check regularly for updated guidance.
OSHA has made clear that, although there isn’t a specific OSHA standard addressing COVID-19, employers should use analogous general standards for Personal Protective Equipment and Bloodborne Pathogens as a guide. As always, OSHA requires employers to provide employees a safe and healthy workplace, free of recognized hazards, which now includes the spread of COVID-19.
In terms of how to address this new hazard, employers should:
- Understand that the risks and hazards will likely change as more information is gathered regarding COVID-19 and stay informed by regularly reviewing OSHA’s website for new information and updated guidance;
- Develop a COVID-19 plan to address the known hazards and put precautions in place at the worksite, which should be continually reviewed and updated as new information becomes available; and
- Understand that COVID-19 can qualify as a recordable illness on the OSHA 300 log in certain circumstances, OSHA provides guidance on this possibility here.
OSHA’s guidance makes plain there is no “one size fits all” COVID-19 plan. Instead, the recent guidance provides employers with a detailed roadmap on suggested practices that depend on the specific risk level for employees. OSHA identifies four levels of risk exposure, ranging from “Very High” to “Lower Exposure Risk.” To put these categories in context, any employee that has direct contact with COVID-19 patients (like doctors and healthcare workers) falls into the “Very High” category. On the other end, employees that have little contact with the public or COVID-19 patients will likely be classified as “Lower Exposure Risk.”
Once an employer has identified the applicable level of risk exposure for its employees, OSHA’s guidance provides detailed suggestions for:
- Engineering controls like physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards; air-handling systems; or special handling procedures for employees in direct contact with COVID-19 patients;
- Administrative controls that include updating employees regularly on the workplace’s COVID-19 policy and CDC guidance; minimizing face-to-face contact through remote working and keeping customers away from the worksite; ensuring compliance by requiring ill employees to stay home; and specialized training, psychological and behavioral support for those employees in high risk categories; and
- Personal protective equipment such as gloves, gowns, face shields and respirators for higher risk categories. Employers should note that the recent guidance details when PPE may be required for employees in the medium risk category in certain circumstances.
By using OSHA’s guidance, an employer can tailor and update a COVID-19 plan for its employees that corresponds with each employee’s risk level. Even if an employer does not have any employees that fall into a higher risk category, OSHA still recommends that all employers develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan. This includes staying informed on the latest guidance (which can be done by regularly checking OSHA’s COVID-19 website) and updating the response plan as needed.