The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) identified six standards in addition to the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) that apply to businesses reopening as shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders begin lifting. The standards for personal protective equipment (PPE), 29 CFR §1910.132; respiratory protection, §1910.134; sanitation, §1910.141; hazard communication, §1910.1200; access to employee exposure and medical records, §1910.1020; and recording and reporting occupational injuries and illnesses, part 1904, all apply, the agency indicated in new guidance for employers.
The “Guidance on Returning to Work” (OSHA 4045) supplements both the White House “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again” and “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” issued earlier this year by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. COVID-19 currently is widespread in most U.S. communities and considered a workplace hazard.
Because COVID-19 is a recognized workplace hazard, every employer is required, under their general duty, to “furnish to each of his employees 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 to his employee.”
The White House guidelines established three phases to reopening tied to a downward trend in cases of COVID-like symptoms, documented case, and hospitalizations in each state. OSHA offered employer recommendations for each phase.
Businesses should consider making telework available during Phase 1, if possible and feasible with business operations, according to the agency. OSHA also suggested limiting the number of people in the workplace, when employees return, to maintain strict social distancing practices. Employers also should consider making workplace accommodations available for workers at higher risk of severe illness, including older employees and those with serious underlying health conditions.
Employers also should consider providing accommodations for workers with household members at higher risk of severe illness so workers do not carry the virus home, according to OSHA. Any nonessential business travel should be limited.
During Phase 2, employers still should offer telework where possible. They may consider resuming nonessential business travel.
Limitations on the number of people in the workplace may be eased, but social distancing protocols should remain in place, according to the agency. Employers should continue to provide accommodations for employees with both higher risk of severe illness and household members at increased risk of severe illness.
Employers would resume normal operations once their state reaches Phase 3.
Workers’ exposure risks to SARS-CoV-2 will change as outbreak conditions in the community change. Employers should develop and implement policies and procedures for preventing, monitoring for, and responding to any new emergence or resurgence of COVID-19 in the workplace or community. Employers should continue such practices to help prevent COVID-19 from emerging or resurging in their workplace.
At worst, a new emergence or resurgence could result in the temporary closure of the business. State, county, municipal, and tribal governments have broad authority in public health emergencies.
A resurgence could lead to increases in infected and sick employees and an increased need for contact tracing of individuals, such as customers or vendors, who visited a workplace, as well as enhanced cleaning and disinfection practices.
In planning to reopen, employers will need to perform a hazard assessment, evaluating all job categories and tasks for occupational exposures to SAR-CoV-2. Employers will need to consider employee interactions with the public and close contact with coworkers, according to OSHA, as well as stay informed of current outbreak conditions.
A program for protecting employees after reopening would include elements covered in earlier guidelines from OSHA and the CDC—hygiene practices, social distancing, identification and isolation of infected employees, procedures for employees returning to work after a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19, and administrative and engineering controls and PPE.
OSHA reminded employers of antiretaliation provisions of the OSH Act. The agency also answered some questions employers frequently ask, including:
- Employers may conduct worksite SARS-CoV-2 testing but must conduct it in a transparent, nonretaliatory manner.
- Employers also may conduct worksite temperature checks and other health screenings but must provide PPE for personnel performing checks and comply with employee exposure and medical records regulations.
- Employers should modify interactions among employees and with the public (customers and visitors) to reduce the need for PPE.