On August 13, 2021, OSHA issued updated guidance to better align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s July 27, 2021 recommendations, given the rising cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant. While this new guidance does not formally establish standards or regulations nor does it create new legal obligations for employers, the update includes CDC’s more recent face-masking recommendations and includes a checklist with recommendations on how to develop practices and procedures to protect unvaccinated and high-risk employees. This newly released guidance communicates OSHA’s expectations regarding the implementation of practices that are consistent and/or equally protective to avoid citations as employers are required to provide a safe workplace for employees.
What Employers Need to Know
OSHA’s updated guidance indicates that to protect employees during these substantial or high transmission rates, employers should create a multi-layered intervention process to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Steps include but are not limited to:
- Encouraging and facilitating employees to get the vaccination by providing paid time off, working with local agencies to provide vaccinations in the workplace, and adopting policies that require employees to get vaccinated.
- Instructing employees to stay at home if they had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
- Implementing physical distancing in the workplace. Employers should determine if there are measures that can be taken to implement flexible worksites, work hours, or meetings and travel options to limit exposure to unvaccinated or at-risk workers. Employers should also still evaluate if they can implement transparent shields or solid barriers to divide people so workers do not have face-to-face pathways.
- Implementing face coverings, surgical masks or other face coverings.
- Educating and training employees on COVID-19 policies and procedures including but not limited to paid time off, face coverings, how to health screen, and physical distancing in the workplace.
- Having a face covering policy for guests, customers, and visitors in areas where there is substantial or high transmission.
- Maintaining ventilation systems to reduce the concentration of viral particles in indoor air and the risk of virus transmission to unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers.
- Performing routine cleaning and disinfection in the workplace.
- Recording and reporting COVID-19 deaths.
- Having anti-retaliation procedures that protect employees from COVID-19-related leave and safety measures.
- Reviewing other OSHA standards that may apply.
Because individuals may have more exposure risk due to close contact, extended duration of contact, contact with limited ventilation, or other distinctive factors that may increase risk of exposure to COVID-19 in workplaces that are considered “higher risk”, OSHA instructs employers to evaluate and determine if the following actions can be implemented to assist in a safe workplace:
- Stagger employees’ shifts (arrival and departure times) to limit interactions in commona areas (time clocks, entrances, rest rooms, and other common areas)
- Install/post workplace floor markings, signs, etc as a reminder to maintain physical distancing.
- Stagger break times, if applicable and appropriate (i.e. high-population workplaces), or provide additional, temporary break areas and restrooms to allow social distancing during breaks.
- Require workers to wear masks whenever possible
- Encourage and even consider requiring, if such is allowable given any state or local regulatiory limits, customers and other visitors to do the same
- Consider improvements to facility’s ventilation systems, if appropriate (See also CDC’s Ventilation in Buildings and in the OSHA Alert: COVID-19 Guidance on Ventilation in the Workplace, and ASHRAE Guidance for Building Operations and Industrial Settings During the COVID-19 Pandemic for more specifics.)
*For meat processing as well as manufacturing and assembly line settings, OSHA has provided additional guidance requiring employers to ensure there is adequate ventilation in the facility, maximize physical distancing, and install barriers to block face-to-face pathways.