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Safety/OSHA and Coronavirus/COVID-19

Last Updated: 3.27.2020 @ 3:25 pm

OSHA Published Guidance

OSHA is closely coordinating with CDC, NIOSH, and other agencies to monitor the ongoing outbreak. In order to reduce the risk of hazard as much as possible, employers should review OSHA’s new Guidelines for Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19.

  • The guidelines are advisory and informational in nature only.
  • The guidelines do not create any new legal obligations.
  • The guidelines assist employers with identifying a risk level for their employees and determining appropriate control measures.
  • Most employers should follow basic steps to reduce risk.
  • Employers should be encouraged to promote frequent hand-washing,
  • stay home if sick,
  • exercise respiratory etiquette (sneeze and cough into the elbow or a tissue),
  • discourage employees from using other employees’ phones, desks, offices, and work tools, and
  • maintain regular housekeeping including cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.

OSHA has developed a website with information for workers and employers on how to stay healthy during the outbreak.

  • Website includes information on implementing the hierarchy of controls when workers have specific exposure risks.

Exposure to Coronavirus/COVID-19

  • Train all workers about their risk of occupational exposure to COVID-19, as well as on what to do if they have traveled to high-risk areas or been exposed to possible cases.
  • For workers at particular risk of exposure (e.g., in healthcare, others), discuss:
  • Sources of exposure to the virus and hazards associated with that exposure.
  • Appropriate ways to prevent or reduce the likelihood of exposure, including use of engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE.
  • Some OSHA standards (e.g., BBP, PPE) require worker training.
  • If an employee is exposed to COVID-19 in the work environment, and is diagnosed with the Coronavirus, and receives “medical treatment” or the case involves restricted work duties or days away from work, then the case may be an OSHA recordable event.
  • Most U.S. workers are at low risk of exposure, similar to other members of the general American public. Employees working in the following industries are at an increased risk of occupational exposure to COVID-19.
    • healthcare industry,
    • mortuary services,
    • airline operations,
    • international business travel

OSHA does not recommend any special precautions, beyond general hygiene practices, for most workers. There is no OSHA standard specifically addressing airborne viruses or diseases such as COVID-19. However, employers should be aware that OSHA would rely upon Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, otherwise known as the General Duty Clause, if appropriate to issue a citation. Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act states:

  • (a) Each employer —
    • shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.

OSHA enforcement authority

    • During emergency response operations, even when OSHA is operating in a technical assistance and support mode, OSHA standards remain in effect and OSHA retains its ability to enforce the OSHA standards under the OSH Act.
    • Enforcement of OSHA standards follows the jurisdiction in place before the emergency, such as in states operating OSHA-approved occupational safety and health programs called State Plans.

FAQs


Q: Should employers restrict workers who have had potential exposures from coming to work?
A: The United States has implemented travel restrictions and quarantine measures to help safeguard the public’s health and limit imported cases from abroad.

Most employers do not need to institute monitoring on their own, but they may consider allowing workers with potential exposure or infection to use flexibilities, such as telework and sick leave, to reduce the exposure risk for others.

Q: Is the “fear” of going to a construction work site doing essential business function good cause for an employee to avoid work under OSHA 11(c) unsafe work condition?
A: OSHA 11(c) whistle-blower provisions only apply after reporting a hazard and would be in effect for employees. However, employees are only entitled to refuse to work if they believe they are in imminent danger. Section 13(a) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) defines “imminent danger” to include “any conditions or practices in any place of employment which are such that a danger exists which can reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately or before the imminence of such danger can be eliminated through the enforcement procedures otherwise provided by this Act.” OSHA discusses imminent danger as where there is “threat of death or serious physical harm,” or “a reasonable expectation that toxic substances or other health hazards are present, and exposure to them will shorten life or cause substantial reduction in physical or mental efficiency.”

  • The threat must be immediate or imminent, which means that an employee must believe that death or serious physical harm could occur within a short time, for example, before OSHA could investigate the problem. Requiring travel to China or to work with patients in a medical setting without personal protective equipment at this time may rise to this threshold. Most work conditions in the United States, however, do not meet the elements required for an employee to refuse to work. Once again, this guidance is general, and employers must determine when this unusual state exists in your workplace before determining whether it is permissible for employees to refuse to work.

Q: What is recommended for U.S. workers and employers of workers with potential occupational exposures to COVID-19?
A:

  • Identify and isolate suspected cases.
  • Implement other precautions appropriate for the worksite and job tasks, and according to the hierarchy of controls.

Q: What should standard, contact, and airborne precautions consist of in workplaces where workers may be exposed to COVID-19?
A: OSHA guidance breaks this down by worker type.

  • Engineering controls, such as isolation rooms and other physical barriers, can limit most workers’ exposures.
  • Administrative controls and safe work practices include measures such as limiting access to patient care areas, effective sharps management, and worker training.
  • PPE may include gloves, gowns, goggles or face shields, and N95 or better respirators.

Q: Why do OSHA and CDC recommend goggles in addition to airborne precautions?
A: Precautions for COVID-19 are based on evolving epidemiologic evidence of how the virus spreads, and what is known about transmission from SARS and MERS outbreaks.

  • Airborne precautions, including the use of NIOSH-certified N95 or better respirators, are appropriate because the virus may be spread through a range of respirable particle sizes.
  • Since COVID-19 may infect people through mucous membranes of the eyes and face, face/eye protection is also needed.

Q: Clinical samples of sputum are not covered by the BBP standard’s universal precautions. How should employers protect workers handling these samples?
A: While universal precautions do not apply to sputum in the BBP standard, standard precautions that CDC introduced to protect healthcare workers from a wider range of pathogens, do. Follow standard and transmission-based (contact + airborne) precautions.

  • OSHA and CDC infection prevention recommendations are more protective than the minimum precautions the BBP standard requires.

Q: COVID-19 is not a bloodborne pathogen, so does the BBP standard apply?
A: The BBP standard applies to occupational exposure to blood, certain body fluids, and other potentially infectious materials, as defined in the standard.

  • Even though COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, workers in healthcare and other sectors may still have occupational exposures covered by the standard.
  • In those cases, employers must comply with the provisions of the standard.

Q: Do I have to record cases of COVID-19 on my entity’s OSHA 300, 300A, & 301 forms?
A: While 29 CFR 1904.5(b)(2)(viii) exempts recording of the common cold and flu, COVID-19 is a recordable illness when a worker is infected on the job. Find additional injury and illness recordkeeping information at OSHA.gov.

Q: What disinfectant products should we use?
A: This list is updated frequently. https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2

Q: Could you address the right to refuse, regarding if an employee refuses to come to work, but does not have COVID symptoms? As far as employee rights versus employer rights?
A: Typically, employees can only refuse to work if they believe they are in imminent danger. OSHA defines “imminent danger” as “any conditions or practices in any place of employment which are such that a danger exists which can reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately or before the imminence of such danger can be eliminated through the enforcement procedures otherwise provided by this Act.” Most work environments do not meet the threshold of an “imminent danger” standard, but each employer will need to determine on a case by case basis whether an employee is able to refuse work. It is also worth noting that employees may be protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act for discussing the safety of the workforce with other employees and participating in a concerted refusal to work in unsafe condition.

DISCLAIMER: This is a guide, not legal advice. Every situation is different and people should contact us with specific questions.

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