How Will OSHA’s Updated COVID-19 Guidance Protect Workers?

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It has been over a year since the first case of Coronavirus (COVID-19) was detected in Wuhan, China. Since then, it has spread like wildfire to become the worst global pandemic in over 100 years. There have been over 41 million cases and 1.1 million deaths worldwide, according to recent reports. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently released a comprehensive guidance on the steps employers must take to protect their employees from exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.

Although much of the 6,000-page document repeats information that was included in previous guidelines that were released in the early days of the pandemic, the updates are significant because they provide employers with a clear roadmap on how to identify risks that could increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission among workers. Those who believe they have been exposed to COVID-19 at work should contact an experienced Workers’ Compensation lawyer for assistance.

What are the Updates to the New OSHA Guidance?

President Joe Biden has ordered OSHA to develop COVID-19 emergency temporary standards (ETS) for employers, which was a campaign promise he made to labor unions. The order, which was signed the day after he was inaugurated, will likely lead to the adoption of ETS by March 15. The following are examples of the key updates to the OSHA guidance of which employers should be aware in the coming months:

  • Employers are responsible for providing all employees with the COVID-19 vaccine at no cost to the employee. Because there is currently no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine prevents transmission of the virus from person to person, employers are expected to follow the recommended protective measures, including mask wearing, hand sanitizing, and social distancing, even if workers have been vaccinated.
  • Employers will be responsible for providing cloth face coverings or surgical masks. If the work requires the employee to use a respirator, this must be provided as well. In previous guidelines, it was only recommended that employers purchase masks. Many states did not require masks, and it was not required by OSHA. The new guidance also directs employers to obtain masks with clear coverings over the mouth if there are deaf employees. This would allow hearing-impaired workers to be able to communicate with other workers by reading lips. Face coverings should have a minimum of two layers and should not have exhalation valves or vents. If workers’ jobs cause face covering to become wet or dirty throughout the day, the employer must provide the necessary replacement masks throughout the day, or as needed.
  • Previous guidelines stated that workers must quarantine if they came in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The updated guidance also includes this directive. However, it also includes a new quarantine requirement. Employees who hugged, kissed, shared an eating utensil, or had direct physical contact with someone who has COVID-19 must now quarantine. In addition, any situation in which a person with COVID-19 sneezed or coughed, or someone spread respiratory droplets onto a worker, must quarantine.
  • Employers are urged to implement non-punitive sick day policies and provide paid sick leave to minimize the impact of employee quarantines. Employers with fewer than 500 workers should allow workers to take advantage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act leave. This is available only until March 31, 2021 unless Congress extends it.
  • Employers must assign a workplace coordinator who will be responsible for handling and managing COVID-19-related issues. Workers should be included in the process of hazard assessment so that they can identify how and where other workers may be exposed to COVID-19.

It is likely that OSHA’s guidance as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic will change and evolve, and additional updates will be incorporated when the ETS is adopted.

What Steps Should All Employers Take to Protect Workers from COVID-19?

The following are basic steps that all employers should take to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure in the workplace:

  • Develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan: An effective plan should address a range of issues, including the following:
    – Where and how workers may be exposed to COVID-19
    – Risk factors at home and in the community
    – Workers who are considered high-risk because of age or health conditions that cause them to have a compromised immune system
    – Controls necessary to address the risks associated with various worksites and tasks
    – Increase in the number of employees who are habitually absent because of COVID-19
    – The need for social distancing, remote delivery services, staggered work shifts, and other measures that reduce exposure to others
    – Options for reducing the workforce, and cross-training workers so that they can perform a range of responsibilities
    – Interruptions in the supply chain
  • Implement basic infection prevention measures: Employers should encourage all workers to implement good hygiene and infection control practices, including the following:
    – Encourage all workers, customers, clients, and visitors to wash their hands frequently. Provide alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and running water are not available.
    – Workers should be encouraged to stay home if they are sick.
    – Encourage all workers to practice respiratory etiquette, including covering coughs and sneezes.
    – Explore new policies, including flexible work schedules, telecommuting, and staggered shifts to decrease the number of employees in the workplace at one time.
    – Maintain a regular cleaning and disinfecting schedule in the workplace.
  • Develop policies and procedures to identify and isolate sick people: When appropriate, the following steps should be taken:
    – Encourage employees to self-monitor for the common symptoms of COVID-19, particularly if they suspect possible exposure.
    – Develop specific policies and procedures that workers should follow if they develop COVID-19-related symptoms.
    – Isolate individuals who have symptoms of COVID-19 in order to limit further transmission.
  • Develop, implement, and communicate about workplace flexibilities and protections
    – Establish sick leave policies that are consistent with public health guidelines, and make sure all employees are aware of the policies.
    – When employees need to take a sick day, do not require them to bring in a note from a health care provider.
    – Allow workers to take a sick day in order to care for a sick relative.
    – Encourage all temporary workers and contract employees to stay home if they feel sick, and discuss non-punitive policies with the companies that employ temporary workers.
    – The more informed workers are about health issues, leave, training, education and job functions, the less likely they are to be unnecessarily absent. Employers should provide adequate training and encourage the recommended hygiene protocols.
    – Collaborate with insurance companies and state and local health departments to provide important information to employees about the COVID-19 outbreak, and the recommended medical care.
  • Implement workplace controls: The most effective way to control hazards in the workplace is by using what is known as the hierarchy of controls, which includes the following:
    – Engineering controls: These isolate employees from work-related hazards. COVID-19-related engineering controls include installing high-efficiency air filters, increasing ventilation, installing physical barriers and driver-through customer service windows, and negative-pressure ventilation where necessary.
    – Administrative controls: These are changes in work policies or procedures that minimize exposure to a hazard, which include encouraging workers to stay home when sick, minimizing contact with other individuals, creating flexible schedules, limiting non-essential travel, and providing training on all issues related to COVID-19.
    – Safe work practices:
    These are meant to reduce the duration, frequency, or intensity of exposure to hazards in the workplace. They include promoting personal hygiene practices by providing no-touch trash cans, hand soap and sanitizer, disinfectants, and disposable towels. Signs should be posted in bathrooms that encourage hand washing after using the bathroom, when hands are visibly soiled from work, and after removing any personal protective equipment.
    – Personal protective equipment (PPE):
    Workers must be trained on how to properly use the PPE necessary for his or her job. All PPE must be selected based on the hazard to the worker, properly fitted, worn properly and consistently, inspected and maintained, and replaced if necessary. Health care workers who work within six feet of patients who are infected with COVID-19 must use National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH)-approved N95 filtering face shields. The appropriate type of respirator used will depend on the type of exposure and the transmission pattern of COVID-19. If these are not available, other respirators that provide the necessary protection should be worn. Employees should be trained on the proper fit, function, and how to properly clean this equipment.
  • Follow existing OSHA standards: There is currently no OSHA standard that covers COVID-19 exposure. However, the following requirements may reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure in the workplace:
    – OSHA’s PPE standard
    – The General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) Act of 1970, which states that employers must provide workers: Employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm.

Baltimore Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Represent Workers Exposed to COVID-19 in the Workplace

If you or a loved one becomes sick after being exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace, you are urged to contact the Baltimore Workers’ Compensation lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton as soon as possible. Your employer has a responsibility to provide a safe work environment, and to take the necessary precautions to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19. Our dedicated legal team will walk you through the claims process and ensure that you receive the financial benefits you deserve. To schedule a free, confidential consultation, call us today at 844-556-4LAW (4529) or contact us online. Located in Baltimore, we serve clients throughout Maryland.