Employee Protection: OSHA’s New Guidance for COVID-19 Protection

Local and state governments often have differing views on COVID-19 safety in public spaces. This lack of consistency can trickle down to workplaces—leaving employers and employees alike confused about proper protocols to stay safe.

On Jan. 29, 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued updated guidance intended to help employers and workers identify risks, determine appropriate control measures and make recommendations to assist all in providing a safe and healthful workplace.

OSHA’s announcement creates no new legal stipulations for employers. It’s simply a set of recommendations covering several areas of concern, and we’ve summarized the key points. Be sure to include them as you develop and document a comprehensive COVID-19 prevention program at your workplace.

Implement a COVID-19 Prevention Program

The most effective COVID-19 prevention programs engage workers with employers to develop something that works for all. It should include hazard assessment, measures that limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, protocols to ensure workers who are infected (or potentially infected) are separated or sent home, and more.

A few key suggestions from OSHA’s announcement:

  • Assign a workplace coordinator who will be responsible for COVID-19 issues on your company’s behalf.
  • Identify where and how workers might be exposed. Do a thorough hazard assessment.
  • Identify a combination of measures that will help limit the spread.
  • Consider protections for workers at higher risk for severe illness through supportive policies and practices.
  • Establish a system for communicating effectively with works in a language they understand.
  • Educate and train works on your COVID-19 policies and procedures in a language they understand
  • Minimize the negative impact of quarantine and isolation of workers
  • Perform enhanced cleaning and disinfecting
  • Provide guidance on screening and testing
  • Implement protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns

In addition, OSHA elaborated on the following measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Mask Up!

With studies increasingly showing that masks greatly reduce Coronavirus transmission, OSHA’s new guidance suggests that employer provide all workers with  face coverings (at no cost to employees) unless their tasks require a respirator. The guidance also states any mask worn in the workplace should fit specific requirements:

“Face coverings should be made of at least two layers of a lightly woven breathable fabric, such as cotton, and should not have exhalation valves or vents. They should fit snugly over the nose, mouth, and chin with no large caps on the outside of the face.”

Employers should also discuss “reasonable accommodation” for workers unable to wear face coverings due to disability. In workplaces with deaf employees, OSHA recommends considering masks with clear coverings over the mouth to facilitate lipreading.

OSHA also emphasizes that customers and other non-employee visitors age 2 or older should wear face coverings unless actively consuming food or beverages. Additional information includes what to do when masks get wet or dirty, as well as the use of face shields and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

Keep Your Distance

OSHA recommends keeping people at least six feet apart whenever possible, especially in poorly ventilated buildings. One of the easiest ways to do this is limiting the number of people in the workplace. Some ways to achieve this include:

  • Flexible work hours (staggering or sharing shifts)
  • Telework
  • Delivering services remotely (e.g., provide a consultation via video or phone instead of in person)
  • Limiting the number of non-employees (customers, guests) present at any given time
  • Postponing nonessential meetings and live events
  • Taking inventory or stocking shelves during off-peak hours or after hours (if the employee agrees)

You can also alter your workspace to maintain distance. Use tape, decals and other markers to show six-foot distances where lines form. Spread desks or cashier stations apart, and set up electronic payment terminals farther from cashiers. Implementing drive-through or curbside service also limits physical contact between customers and employees, lowering everyone’s risk. Install clear partitions to act as barriers between people when distancing isn’t feasible.

Don’t forget about break rooms and other places on the premises where workers regularly gather. Limit the use of these areas or close them as necessary. Discourage or prohibit physical contact such as handshakes or hugs. Whatever you decide, post the rules where they can easily be seen by employees.

Workplace Ventilation

With airborne transmission playing a huge role in the spread of COVID-19, proper ventilation is a key to protecting employees. OSHA cites guidance from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) as it promotes several methods to help in this vein.

Increase ventilation by opening windows and doors as weather permits (ensuring this doesn’t present a safety or health risk). Use fans to circulate air with placement that doesn’t direct airflow from one person directly to another. It also helps to keep systems running for as long as possible to exchange as much air as possible.

Employers should also make sure ventilation systems are operating properly. Check filters and exhaust fans (especially in kitchens), and have a qualified service technician regularly inspect and maintain systems regularly. If possible, implement upgrades like HEPA filtration, MERV-13 filtration, or ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) to keep air cleaner. Your technician can give you more information on these and other options.

Hygiene Helps

These days we’re all flashing back to our parents’ regular refrain of “Wash your hands!” And they were right; hand washing and other hygiene practices can greatly reduce physical transmission. To protect your employees and others at your business, follow these steps:

  • Keep ample soap on hand and make sure you provide warm (or at least tepid) water for washing.
  • Provide alcohol-based hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% ethanol or 7% isopropanol. Place stations in multiple locations, and use touchless dispensers whenever possible.
  • Provide workers with enough opportunities (and time) to wash their hands regularly. Hand washing should last at least 20 seconds.
  • Instruct employees as to when they should wash their hands (before and after shifts, after using the restroom, before and after eating or preparing food, after touching PPE or face coverings, after blowing their nose, etc.).
  • Provide tissues and no-touch trash cans for when employers have to blow their noses, cough or sneeze.

Routine Cleaning and Disinfection

Extend those hygiene practices to the workplace itself. Routinely clean all surfaces that are frequently touched—keyboards, counters, payment terminals, doorknobs, telephones, etc. Try not to share objects like pens or tools. If this is unavoidable, however, make sure they’re disinfected with each use. Provide your employees with disposable disinfecting wipes to help ensure these steps are taken.

With more cleaners and other chemicals around, it’s important to remember how to properly store, label and use these products. Read the manufacturers’ labels for specific instructions, and avoid mixing them to prevent toxic fumes.

Someone Might Be Sick. Now What?

OSHA provides specific recommendations on handling infections or potential infections. It’s important to make these measures protective and not punitive, as the sole purpose is to keep people safe. When introducing or executing your plan, do so with sensitivity and consideration.

If a worker shows symptoms or has been knowingly exposed to the virus, instruct them to stay at home. (Send them home immediately if this happens while they’re at the workplace.) Provide any means possible for them to continue working if they feel able via telework or in an isolated space. Otherwise, allow them to use paid sick leave. (Learn more about the tax credits available when you provide coronavirus-related paid leave.)

Then close the area used by the employee for 24 hours (or as long as practical) before thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting. Anyone performing this work should be provided with disposable gloves and additional PPE such as goggles, aprons, etc. In addition to following OSHAs recommendations for regular cleaning and ventilation, vacuum the space with equipment that has HEPA filtration if you can. For additional protection, use products on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus. The area can reopen once these procedures are complete.

Please note this article is a summary of OSHA’s new guidelines; you can read the entire announcement for more details. While these recommendations are not law, we recommend abiding by them as much as possible. An HR consultant can help you create a COVID-19 prevention program that takes these and other aspects into account.

All content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Matters discussed in this article are subject to change. For up-to-date information on this subject please contact a James Moore professional. James Moore will not be held responsible for any claim, loss, damage or inconvenience caused as a result of any information within these pages or any information accessed through this site.