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On Jan. 29, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued “Protecting Workers:  Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace,” which provides updated guidance and recommendations for employers and outlines existing safety and health standards. OSHA states, “The recommendations are advisory in nature, informational in content and are intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace.” ABC’s general counsel, Littler Mendelson P.C., also published an article that discusses OSHA’s new COVID-19 guidance. 

While employers are encouraged to read the Littler article in its entirety, excerpts from the article are provided below:

COVID-19 Prevention Programs

The guidance encourages employers to implement COVID-19 prevention programs in the workplace. According to OSHA, these programs are an effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at work and employees and/or their representatives should be involved with the program’s development and implementation. The guidance lists 16 elements—four of which are considered key elements—that should be included in a COVID-19 prevention program. Read the Littler article to learn about the four key elements that should be included.

Return to Work Criteria

The guidance discusses additional measures for limiting the spread of COVID-19, starting with separating and sending home infected or potentially infected people so they cannot infect other workers. Employers should follow a symptom-based strategy for identifying, separating and sending home workers according to OSHA, although there may be limited circumstances where a test-based strategy is appropriate.  To learn more about a symptom-based strategy and quarantine guidelines, see the Littler article.

For additional information, see OSHA’s eliminating the hazard by separating and sending home infected or potentially infected people from the workplace.

Social Distancing Measures

Maintaining at least six feet of distance between individuals can be one of the best ways to protect individuals from infection.  As such, OSHA recommends that employers implement various measures such as limiting the number of people in one place at any given time (including during toolbox talks and safety meetings), increasing the physical space between workers and/or customers, altering work spaces to add physical cues reminding individuals to physically distance from one another (e.g., signs, tape marks, decals, etc.), offering vulnerable workers duties that minimize their contact with others and prohibiting handshaking or other forms of physical contact.

Additional information can be found in OSHA’s implementing physical distancing in all communal work areas.

Engineering Controls

The guidance discusses two specific types of engineering controls for employers to consider: barriers between workers and ventilation. At fixed workstations where workers are not able to remain at least six feet away from other people, OSHA recommends that transparent shields or other solid barriers (e.g., plexiglass, flexible strip curtains) be installed. These barriers do not replace the need for social distancing, according to the agency, and six feet of separation should still be maintained between individuals when possible.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 in buildings, OSHA also recommends that employers improve ventilation. The guidance lists a number of helpful strategies to achieve this goal.

Additional information can be found in OSHA’s installing barriers where physical distancing cannot be maintained and improving ventilation.

Face Coverings and PPE

Face coverings are simple barriers that help prevent respiratory droplets from reaching others. According to OSHA, face coverings should be made of at least two layers of a tightly woven breathable fabric and should not have exhalation valves or vents. They should fit snugly over the nose, mouth and chin with no large gaps on the outside of the face. When worn properly, face coverings can suppress the spread of COVID-19.  Wearing a face covering, however, is complementary to and not a replacement for physical distancing.

The guidance recommends that employers provide all workers with face coverings at no cost to the worker. In addition, employers should require any other individuals at the workplace (e.g., visitors, customers, nonemployees) to wear a face covering unless they are under the age of two or are actively consuming food or beverages on site.

OSHA standards may require employers to provide PPE to supplement other controls when the measures discussed above cannot be implemented or do not protect workers fully. In these scenarios, employers must determine what PPE is necessary and provide all necessary PPE to workers at no cost in accordance with relevant OSHA standards.

Additional information can be found in OSHA’s suppressing the spread of the hazard using face coverings and use personal protective equipment when necessary.

Sanitization, Cleaning and Disinfecting Practices

Per OSHA’s guidance, employers should ensure that workers, customers and visitors have adequate supplies and time to clean their hands frequently and cover their coughs and sneezes. Posters encouraging hand hygiene and physical distancing should be posted at the entrance to a workplace and in other areas where they are likely to be seen. These posters should be in a language workers can understand, including non-English speakers.

Employers should also develop, implement and maintain a plan to perform regular cleanings to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. This should include routine cleaning and disinfecting of all frequently touched surfaces and portable jobsite toilets, prohibiting the sharing of objects or tools between workers or ensuring appropriate cleaning and disinfection of shared tools, providing disposable disinfecting wipes so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped down before each use, storing and using disinfectants in a responsible manner and advising workers to always wear gloves or additional PPE appropriate for the chemicals being used.

Additional information can be found in these OSHA articles on providing the supplies necessary for good hygiene practices and performing routine cleaning and disinfection.

Additional Resources:

 This article is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion.