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New OSHA Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace

6/28/21 – Natalie Thompson

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In early May, the CDC released information explaining that fully vaccinated people do not need to take all the precautions that unvaccinated people should take. Since then, many State and Local laws and rules requiring COVID-19 precautions have been lifted. As a result, for the past month, employers have been left wondering what safety protocols and requirements are needed in the workplace.

On Thursday, June 10th, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released guidance to help employers take the necessary steps to prevent exposure and infection of COVID-19 to workers who are unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk.

This guidance is separate from the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) set forth by OSHA, which were directed specifically to healthcare employers and workers. The ETS establishes new standard requirements for settings where employees provide healthcare or healthcare support services, including skilled nursing homes and home healthcare. If you are a healthcare provider, you can find additional information here.

The role of Employers in Responding to COVID-19 (non-healthcare settings)

Where all employees are fully vaccinated at an employer site, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their workers from COVID-19 exposure. Employers should engage with workers to determine how to implement multi-layered interventions to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. OSHA recommends:

1. Grant paid time off for employees to get vaccinated. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees may be eligible for tax credits under the American Rescue Plan if they provide paid time off for employees who decide to receive the vaccine and recover from any potential side effects.

2. Instruct any workers who are infected, unvaccinated workers who had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, and all workers with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home from work. You will want to review your attendance policy and ensure it is non-punitive so that employees feel comfortable calling in sick when they have symptoms.

3. Implement physical distancing for unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers in all communal work areas. Employers may still want to physically distance workers 6 feet apart. Employers could also limit the number of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in the workplace at any given time. Employers should consider implementing flexible worksites, flexible work hours (rotating shift or staggard shifts), delivering services remotely, and/or implementing flexible meeting and travel options. If unvaccinated employees or otherwise at-risk workers are unable to maintain physical distancing of 6 feet or more, transparent shields or barriers are recommended.

4. Provide unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk works with face coverings or surgical masks, unless their work task requires a respirator or other PPE. If for some reason an employee is unable to wear a face covering (due to a disability or who need a religious accommodation), employers may also need to provide reasonable accommodations under federal law. Employers with workers in indoor or outdoor settings where face coverings may increase the risk of heat-related or cause other safety hazards, are encouraged to consult with an OSHA professional to help determine the appropriate face covering use.

5. Educate and train workers on your COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in language they understand. The training that is provided should include basic facts about COVID-19, including how it is spread, the importance of physical distancing, vaccination, face coverings, and hand hygiene as well as workplace policies and procedures implemented to protect workers. The training should be directed at employees, contractors, and any other individual onsite, as appropriate.

6. Suggest that unvaccinated customers, visitors, or guests wear face coverings.

7. Maintain ventilation systems. Improving ventilation is a key engineering control that can be used as part of a layered strategy to reduce the concentration of viral particles in indoor air. Adequate ventilation can protect people within a small space.

8. Perform routine cleaning and disinfection.

9. *Record and report COVID-19 infections and deaths. Under mandatory OSHA rules in 29 CFR 1904, employers are required to record work-related cases of COVID-19 illness on OSHA’s form 300 logs if the following requirements are met:

a. The case is a confirmed case of COVID-19;
b. The case is work-related; and
c. The case involves on or more relevant recording criteria (e.g., medical treatment, days away from work).

10. Implement protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns about COVD-19 related hazards. Employers are prohibited from discharging or discriminating in any way against an employee who raises concerns about infection control related to COVID-19. Employers should notify their workers of their right to a safe and healthful work environment. They should know who to contact for questions or concerns about workplace safety, and that there are prohibitions against retaliation for raising workplace safety concerns.

11. *Follow other applicable mandatory OSHA standards.

*Are mandatory requirements for employers set forth by OSHA.

Some employers may have already implemented many of the recommendations OSHA has provided above. As organizations’ leadership faces increased pressure to lift COVID-19 protocols, additional consideration should be given before doing so. VonLehman HR Consultants can provide additional guidance on what may be appropriate within your workplace setting. For any questions related to OSHA’s most recent guidance, contact Natalie Thompson at nthompson@vlcpa.com or 800.887.0437.