Coronavirus pandemic workplace safety guidelines changed frequently in 2020, and that impacted safety training. For example, at one point last year the feds said to avoid using N95 respirators unless you worked in health care.
Because OSHA has ramped up enforcement related to the pandemic, occupational health and safety attorney Adele Abrams had this to say during the Premier Learning Solutions webinar Safety Policies in 2021: How the New Administration Impacts Employers Now: “We’re not in a position anymore where you can’t get KN95s or N95s. So get them, make them available to your workers, show them how to use them properly.”
And because federal guidance may change again — especially in light of the new strain of the virus — Abrams said it’s crucial for employers to be flexible enough to pivot with the feds by staying on top of anything new OSHA says is related to COVID, particularly when it comes to safety training.
“While companies may have very well-established training for forklifts or fall protection — in multiple languages — very often the COVID programs are being thrown together quickly and the training’s being thrown together quickly. And it’s all being done in English,” she said.
“Remember, in OSHA’s view you have to do all of your safety-related training in a language and a vocabulary that your workers can understand. And if you are simply handing out written policies and they’re in English and somebody can’t read … it, your training is going to be considered deficient.”
In the event of a legal dispute with OSHA over whether an employee case of COVID is work-related, it’s the agency that bears the burden of proving it, according to Abrams.
“But you’re also going to have to show what your basis was for determining that it wasn’t work-related,” she added. “In order to … put your defense out there, what were you reasonably relying on? Was it community transmission rates? Did the person tell you that they had a sick relative at home? Was there no route of transmission in the workplace?”
Bottom line: Be able to show that you did your due diligence to protect your workers.
“If there is a plausible route of transmission … figure out the system you’re going to use and then stick with it so that it is legally defensible,” said Abrams.