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June 18, 2020
OSHA: Employers must plan for COVID-19 hazards

As states lift stay-at-home orders and workplaces reopen, employers must plan for potential hazards of the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and routine workplace hazards, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reminded employers. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. COVID-19 currently is widespread in most U.S. communities and considered a workplace hazard.

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OSHA cautioned that the pandemic may cause employee distraction, fatigue, and stress. The agency also cautioned that employers should:

  • Plan their employees’ return to work to ensure operations resume in a safe and healthful manner;
  • Carefully plan before attempting to increase production or tasks to make up for lost time to avoid exposing employees to greater safety and health hazards; 
  • Provide workers with refresher training on safety and health and revisit and update standard operating procedures;
  • Address maintenance issues they may have deferred during a shutdown and remember that exposures to hazards may increase during shutdown and start-up periods; and
  • Review and address process safety issues, including stagnant or expired chemicals, as part of their reopening efforts.

OSHA also reminded employers that retaliating against workers for raising concerns about safety and health conditions is a violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Employees are encouraged to file whistleblower complaints with the agency, which OSHA will investigate. OSHA suggested employers adopt the agency’s recommended practices for antiretaliation programs.

The agency recommended employers develop and communicate workplace flexibilities to protect employees during the ongoing pandemic, including instituting flexible sick leave policies that encourage workers to stay home when they are sick. OSHA also suggested not requiring a healthcare provider’s note when an employee is absent due to an acute respiratory illness.  

Employers should identify and isolate individuals (customers, employees, supervisors) with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. They also should clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered disinfectants, according to OSHA.

Employers also should recognize that workers may need to stay home to care for a sick family member, according to the agency, and employers should consider implementing flexible leave policies to accommodate employees with sick family members.

OSHA also recommended implementing engineering controls for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including:

  • Installing high-efficiency air filters and increasing ventilation rates in the work environment;
  • Installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards, and drive-through windows for customer service; and
  • Using specialized negative pressure ventilation in certain settings, such as airborne infection isolation rooms in healthcare facilities and specialized autopsy suites in mortuaries.

The agency also suggested employers train workers in the signs, symptoms, and risk factors associated with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as practices like frequent hand-washing for at least 20 seconds with soap and water; social distancing; and avoiding touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.

Workers who have been hospitalized or self-isolated with COVID-19 should following recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state, local, tribal, or territorial health department before returning to work. The CDC continually updates its guidance on the recommended length of isolation.

The CDC issued and continues to update more extensive precautions for office environments.

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