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OSHA Issues New Guidance on COVID-19 Prevention Programs

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released new worker safety guidance for coronavirus protection programs on 29 January, requiring organizations to solicit more input from employees and enhance mask protections.

According to Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace, employees should be involved in the development of the employer’s COVID-19 prevention program, be informed about the terms of the program and any resources available to employees, and be informed that the employer may not retaliate against employees for bringing COVID-19-related concerns to the attention of the employer, media, or public.

A COVID-19 prevention program includes several key elements, OSHA stated:

  • Assign a workplace coordinator who will be responsible for COVID-19 issues.
  • Identify where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work. This includes a thorough hazard assessment.
  • Identify a combination of measures that will limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, such as eliminating hazards, engineering controls, workplace administrative policies, personal protective equipment, installing barriers where physical distancing cannot be maintained, and other measures.
  • Consider protections for workers at higher risk for severe illness through supportive policies and practices.
  • Establish a system for communicating effectively with workers and in a language they understand—particularly to help workers self-report exposures and be notified about exposures or closures.
  • Educate and train workers on COVID-19 policies and procedures in accessible formats, including multiple languages. This education can range from the basic facts about COVID-19 and its spread to workplace policies and procedures.
  • Instruct workers who are infected or potentially infected to stay home and isolate or quarantine. Ensure that absence policies are non-punitive.
  • Minimize the negative impact of quarantine and isolation on workers by enabling telework or isolated workspaces, or allow workers to use paid sick leave.
  • Isolate workers who show symptoms at work.
  • Perform enhanced cleaning and disinfection after people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 have been in the facility. OSHA recommends following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection recommendations.
  • Provide guidance on screening or testing in the area, or arrange for testing in the workplace.
  • Record and report COVID-19 infections and deaths.
  • Implement protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to express concerns about COVID-19 hazards.
  • Make a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available at no cost to all eligible employees.
  • Do not distinguish between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not. Ensure that all workers continue to follow physical distancing and masking guidance.

One of the major differences between the current OSHA guidance and previous information is the stronger focus on face coverings, including a suggestion that employers provide face coverings to workers at no cost, and making accommodations for workers with disabilities that might hamper their ability to wear a mask or do their job while wearing one.

The guidance is not a standard or regulation, OSHA clarified, and it creates no new legal obligations.

“The recommendations are advisory in nature, informational in content, and are intended to assist employers in recognizing and abating hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm as part of their obligation to provide a safe and healthful workplace,” OSHA said.

An executive order signed by U.S. President Joe Biden on 21 January, however, directs OSHA to consider releasing an emergency temporary standard (ETS) related to COVID-19. If it is deemed necessary, the ETS must be issued by 15 March. The executive order directed OSHA to publish updated COVID-19 guidance within two weeks and review its enforcement efforts, according to Safety and Health Magazine.