OSHA Releases Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19

OSHA Releases Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19

As the coronavirus sweeps across the globe, companies are wondering how to keep workplaces—not just individuals—safe from the disease. Read OSHA’s recommendations here.

More and more companies across the United States are either asking employees to work from home, or maybe even temporarily shutting down. The CDC and other health groups remind us to wash our hands, cover our coughs and sneezes, and practice social distancing—but what can workplaces do about this virus? Well, OSHA has prepared some guidance for that big question.

The OSHA Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 addresses a number of common questions about how to prepare for, and deal with, the coronavirus in the workplace.

The document notes that it is not a standard or regulation, but really a set of recommendations and descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards. Its contents address the following topics:

  • About COVID-19
  • How a COVID-19 Outbreak Could Affect Workplaces
  • Steps All Employers Can Take to Reduce Workers’ Risk of Exposure to SARS-CoV-2
  • Classifying Worker Exposure to SARS-CoV-2
  • Jobs Classified at Lower Exposure Risk (Caution): What to Do to Protect Workers
  •  Jobs Classified at Medium Exposure Risk: What to Do to Protect Workers
  • Workers Living Abroad or Traveling Internationally
  • For More Information
  • OSHA Assistance, Services, and Programs
  • OSHA Regional Offices
  • How to Contact OSHA

It first gives an overview of the virus—but by now, must people understand that it’s a respiratory illness that has symptoms including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. It spreads mostly from person-to-person, between individuals in close contact with one another, through droplets produced from sneezing or coughing. It is possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has SARS-CoV-2 on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes, but this is thought to not be the primary means of transmission.

For more information on the virus, how it spreads and more, please read visit the OH&S Coronavirus page for more articles. You can also visit the CDC website that provides the latest information on the virus’ transmission. The OSHA COVID-19 webpage also offers information specifically for workers and employers.

How a COVID-19 Outbreak Could Affect Workplaces
An outbreak of a disease without a vaccine can cause the following results:

  • Absenteeism. Workers could be absent because they are sick, caregivers, afraid to come to work or other reasons.
  • Change in patterns of commerce. Consumer demands for items related to infection prevention (like respirators and hand sanitizer) increases significantly.
  • Interrupted supply/deliver. Shipments of items from geographic areas severely affected by COVID-19 may be delayed or cancelled.

Steps All Employers Can take to Reduce Workers’ Risk of Exposure
Overall, employers do have a role in helping protect their workers. In fact, employers are responsible for their employees’ safety and health. Stay abreast of guidance from federal, state, local, tribal and territorial health agencies. Plans should consider and address the levels of risk associated with various worksites, job tasks and industry.

Employers should prepare to implement basic infection prevention measures. Good hygiene and infection control practices include:

  • promote frequent hand washing
  • encourage workers to stay home if they are sick
  • encourage respiratory etiquette like covering coughs and sneezing
  • explore flexible policies and practices such as telecommuting, flexible work hours and more to increase the physical distance between employees
  • discourage workers from using other workers’ phones, desks, officers or work tools when possible
  • maintain regular housekeeping practices and disinfect surfaces often

It is also important that employers develop, implement and communicate about workplace flexibilities and protection—that way there is open and transparent communication about the virus for everyone’s protection.

This also includes the implementation of both engineering and administrative controls. Engineering controls include installing high-efficiency air filters, whereas administrative controls include minimizing contact between workers and providing workers with up-to-date education and training on COVID-19 risk factors and protective behaviors.

Classifying Worker Exposure to SARS-CoV-2
Worker risk to the virus during an outbreak may vary from very high, to high, to medium to low risk (caution) The level of risk depends, in part, on the industry type, need for contact within 6 feet of people known to be, or suspected of being, infected with SARS-CoV-2. To help employers determine appropriate precautions, OSHA has divided job tasks into the four risk exposure levels. Most American workers will likely fall in the lower exposure or medium exposure risk levels.

  • Very High Exposure. Examples include healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, dentists, paramedics etc.) performing aerosol-generating procedures on known or suspected COVID-19 patients.
  • High Exposure. Examples include healthcare delivery and support staff exposed to known or suspected COVID-19 patients and medical transport workers.
  • Medium Risk Exposure. Examples include workers with ongoing community transmission, those in frequent contact with travelers, those who are in contact with the general public often (schools, high-population-density work environments and some high-volume retail settings).
  • Lower Exposure Risk (Caution). Examples include jobs that do not require contact with people known to be, or suspected of being, infected with the virus. Workers in this category have minimal occupational contact with the public and other coworkers.

The OSHA document provides recommendations for employers on what to in each risk situation—from low to very high. Each risk assessment section provides examples for engineering and administrative controls, as well as ideas for using PPE for workers.

Workers Living Abroad or Traveling Internationally
Employers with workers living or working abroad on international business should consult the “Business Travelers” section of the OSHA COVID-19 webpage which provides the latest CDC travel warning and U.S. Department of State (DOS) travel advisories.

OSHA Assistance, Services and Programs
There are a number of ways OSHA programs and services can help employers identify and correct job hazards, as well as improve their safety and health program.

If your company does not already have one, one thing is a given: establish a safety and health program. They are so important for reducing the number and severity of workplace injuries and illnesses, while reducing costs to employers.

OSHA offers compliance assistance specialists, no-cost on-site safety and health consultation services for small business, cooperative programs, strategic partnerships and alliances, voluntary protection programs (VPP) and various safety and health training resources.

The recently-labeled “pandemic” of COVID-19 is not something employers should take lightly. In order to keep workers safe, it’s imperative that employers asses workplace risks, update their employees on information and training, and consider alternative workplace hours and settings.

For more information, read OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19.

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