OSHA Issues Updated COVID-19 Guidance for Employers

On June 10, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) updated its employer guidance regarding workplace COVID-19 exposures. The agency also announced it will issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) for healthcare and healthcare support services employers.

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The updated guidance for employers not covered by the ETS refocuses its recommendations on protecting unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers. In line with recent public health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), OSHA’s stance is that most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their fully vaccinated workers who are not otherwise at-risk from COVID-19 exposure.

OSHA’s recommendations for non-healthcare employers include:

  • Granting paid time off for employees to get vaccinated, for which businesses with fewer than 500 employees may be eligible for tax credits under the American Rescue Plan Act;
  • Instructing infected workers, unvaccinated workers who have had close contact with someone who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, and all workers with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home from work;
  • Implementing physical distancing of at least 6 feet for unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers in communal work areas and using transparent shields or other solid barriers, such as fire-resistant plastic sheeting or flexible strip curtains, where distancing is impractical;
  • Maintaining ventilation systems as suggested in the CDC’s Ventilation in Buildings recommendations based on the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic;
  • Performing routine cleaning and disinfection and following the CDC’s cleaning and disinfection recommendations if someone who has been in the facility within 24 hours is suspected of having or confirmed to have COVID-19;
  • Suggesting that unvaccinated customers, guests, and visitors wear face coverings; and
  • Providing unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers with face coverings or surgical masks, unless their work task requires a respirator or other personal protective equipment (PPE).

On February 17, ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) announced development of a nonregulatory standard for barrier face coverings to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 exposures.

Employers must record work-related COVID-19 infections and deaths in their Form 300 injury and illness recordkeeping logs; however, the agency does not require employers to record workers’ adverse effects from vaccination.

Workers who report COVID-19 health and safety concerns have whistleblower protections under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. OSHA recommends that employers implement protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns about COVID-19-related hazards.

Some workplaces may have mixed vaccination status among their workforce, and OSHA has additional recommendations for higher-risk workplaces. Higher-risk work settings include close contact on production or assembly lines and in break rooms and changing rooms/locker rooms, as well as in employer-provided housing and transportation, especially where unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers have prolonged closeness with coworkers over an 8- to 12-hour shift.

OSHA recommendations for higher-risk workplaces with mixed vaccination status workforces include:

  • Staggering break times or providing temporary break areas and restrooms to avoid groups of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers congregating during breaks and ensuring that unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others at all times, including on breaks;
  • Staggering workers’ arrival and departure times to avoid congregations of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in parking areas and locker rooms and near time clocks; and
  • Providing visual cues, such as floor markings and signs, as reminders to maintain physical distancing.

The agency suggested that retail employers move the electronic payment terminals or credit card readers farther away from any unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in order to increase the distance between customers and such workers. OSHA also suggested shifting primary stocking activities of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers to off-peak or after hours to reduce contact between unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers and customers.

The agency also suggested that retail employers consider methods for physical distancing unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers from others who are not known to be fully vaccinated and consider the use of barriers between workstations used by such workers and the locations where customers will stand, with pass-through openings at the bottom of barriers.

Healthcare settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities; emergency responders; home healthcare workers; and employees in ambulatory care settings where suspected or confirmed coronavirus patients are treated will be covered by the new ETS once it appears in the Federal Register.