On the evening of March 9, 2020, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a new guidance, “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19.” The guidance divides employers into four risk categories and provides recommendations on engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment to protect employees from coronavirus.
|Risk Category||Very High Exposure||High Exposure||Medium Exposure||Low Exposure|
|Employers Covered||Healthcare workers performing aerosol-generating procedures
Laboratory personnel collecting or handling specimens from known or suspected COVID-19 patients
Morgue workers performing autopsies on bodies of persons known or suspected of having COVID-19
|All other healthcare workers exposed to known or suspected COVID-19 patients
Paramedics/EMTs who are moving known or suspected COVID-19 patients
Mortuary workers preparing bodies of persons known or suspected of having COVID-19
|Workers whose jobs include frequent or close (within 6 feet) contact with other persons, and others who work in high-population density work environments||All other workers|
|Engineering Controls||Ensure proper air-handling systems are installed and maintained in healthcare facilities—follow CDC recommendations
Place patients with known/suspected COVID-19 in airborne infection isolation room
Use isolation rooms for performing aerosol-generating procedures on patients with known/suspected COVID-19
Follow CDC guidance on postmortem activities
Use Biosafety Level 3 special precautions when handling specimens from known/suspected COVID-19 patients
|Same as Very High Exposure||Install physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards||No additional controls recommended|
|Administrative Controls||Develop and implement policies that reduce exposure
Post signs requesting patients and family members immediately report symptoms of respiratory illness on arrival at healthcare facility
Request known/suspected COVID-19 patients use face masks
Consider offering enhanced medical monitoring of workers during COVID-19 outbreaks
Provide job-specific training on COVID-10 prevention
Ensure psychological and behavioral support is available to address employee stress
|Same as Very High Exposure||Inform customers about COVID-19 and ask sick customers to minimize contact with workers
Limit customer/public access to worksite
Consider strategies to minimize face-to-face contact
Communicate availability of medical screening
|Monitor CDC COVID-19 website and public health communications|
|Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)||“Likely need” gloves, gown, face mask, and/or face shield or goggles||Same as Very High Exposure||“May need” some combination of gloves, gown, face mask, and/or face shield or goggles||Not recommended|
OSHA’s guidance also contains recommended steps all employers can take to reduce employee risk of exposure to the coronavirus. These steps include:
- Development of an infectious disease preparedness and response plan
- Implementation of basic infection prevention measures (e.g., promoting frequent and thorough hand washing and encouraging workers to stay at home when sick)
- Development of policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of individuals who are ill
- Communication with employees about workplace flexibilities and protection (e.g., ensuring sick leave policies are flexible and permitting employees to stay home to care for a sick family member)
- Implementation of general engineering controls (e.g., installing high-efficiency air filters and increasing ventilation rates)
- Implementation of general administrative controls (e.g., discontinuing non-essential travel to locations with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks)
- Implementation of PPE during an outbreak of COVID-19
The guidance also encourages employers with overseas workers to monitor the “Business Travelers” section of OSHA’s COVID-19 webpage, which primarily encourages employers to monitor CDC travel advisories. OSHA also recommends that employers communicate to workers that the U.S. Department of State cannot provide Americans traveling or living abroad with medications or supplies, even in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.
OSHA’s guidance has good intentions, but in its attempt to answer employer questions, may generate new questions. It remains unclear how exactly OSHA may enforce efforts to protect employees from COVID-19. The guidance states “follow existing OSHA Standards,” but none were written with COVID-19 or any other infectious disease outbreak in mind. OSHA has long contemplated development and implementation of an infectious disease standard but to date has not done so.
OSHA also urges employers to adhere to the General Duty Clause, which requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees 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 to his employees.” The General Duty Clause is a nebulous catchall provision, intended by Congress to be sparingly used when the agency has not yet developed a standard to address a specific hazard. Thus, it provides little help to employers.
Although the guidance states its recommendations “are advisory in nature” and create “no new legal obligations,” OSHA inspectors investigating coronavirus-related complaints in the workplace will no doubt compare an employer’s adherence to this guidance when evaluating whether the employer has met OSHA’s General Duty Clause. This may present enforcement challenges for OSHA if and when employers challenge citations based on non-adherence to the guidance.
The guidance is silent on common issues employers are currently encountering, such as what to do if employees wish to voluntarily wear surgery masks or respirators in the workplace. We recommend that employers continue to rely on CDC guidance on the matter. As of March 10, 2020, with the exception of the healthcare industry, the CDC does not recommend that the general public use facemasks or respirators. Instead, CDC recommends following everyday preventive actions, such as washing your hands, covering your cough, and staying home when you are sick.