You’ve probably heard about OSHA’s national emphasis program (NEP) to address coronavirus hazards in the workplace. It means a potential increase in inspections — including remote inspections — and fines related to the pandemic (more than $4 million total so far).
One of the most helpful resources for ensuring you’re in compliance with federal guidelines is the agency’s Jan. 29, 2021 “OSHA Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace.”
Because it’s a lot to digest, here are the 16 most important elements (not all may apply to your company) that can serve as a checklist for your organization:
- Assign a COVID-19 workplace coordinator.
- Identify high risk exposure areas and operations.
- Identify measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, including creating a written respiratory protection program.
- Implement policies and procedures to protect high risk employees.
- Implement an effective communication system that includes your non-English speaking employees.
- Implement education and training regarding COVID policies and procedures.
- Have instructions for isolation and quarantine of employees that may have the virus.
- Minimize the negative impacts of isolation and quarantine.
- Isolate employees who show symptoms at work.
- Perform enhanced cleaning after signs of workplace exposure.
- Provide guidance to employees on COVID screening and testing.
- Accurately report and record COVID-19 cases to OSHA.
- Protect employees from whistleblower retaliation.
- Provide vaccinations for all employees.
- Make no distinctions between vaccinated and non-vaccinated employees.
- Comply with other OSHA standards that apply to your business.
In the webinar “OSHA’s New COVID-19 Guidance: The Latest Compliance Requirements,” presented by Safety News Alert and sponsored by TSI Inc., Certified Professional Environmental Auditor Jack Fearing explored a few of these.
OSHA recommends appointing someone in your organization to be a workplace coordinator who:
- monitors required COVID-19 control strategies, including coordinating exposure assessments, job hazard analysis and mitigation procedures
- audits and updates these procedures, including evaluation of employee pandemic safety training effectiveness and documentation of the training
- remains on site whenever employees are present in the workplace (Having one or more designated alternate coordinators is a good idea)
- coordinates contact tracing and stays up to date with CDC guidelines
- develops an employee program for submitting COVID safety suggestions and concerns, and
- is a good communicator (They need to be able to effectively communicate your organization’s best practices to clients, vendors and contractors, and notify employees about known or suspected COVID exposure).
“The workplace coordinator is somebody who should be … highly skilled, knowledgeable and has the authority to make changes and implement processes,” Fearing commented.
What’s your face covering policy? Do any workstations need to be realigned for safety? Do any accommodations need to be made for workers who are at risk, such as work from home or relocation to a less occupied area? Is your workplace cleaning frequent and thorough enough? Do any HVAC adjustments need to be made?
All these questions should be addressed as part of a workplace COVID risk assessment.
Fearing cautioned that this isn’t a one-and-done process. He said that it only represents “a snapshot in time” and should be redone whenever there are major changes, such as the rate of spread of the virus in your local community.
“Risk assessments are guidance documents for making professional judgements. They need to be verified and … that you have the right measures in place,” Fearing said.
OSHA says employers are required to train employees on:
- what COVID-19 is, in the primary language of all employees
- proper use of PPE, including respirator fit-testing with a medical evaluation
- workplace infection control practices
- steps to follow if there are COVID-19 symptoms, or a case is suspected, and
- reporting unsafe working conditions.
As things change, these trainings may need to be updated and revisited. To stay current, Fearing advised registering for OSHA’s daily Workplace Safety Reminders (on the osha.gov home page) and weekly Quick Take Updates.
It also may be a good time to double-check that the qualification credentials of your trainers are up to date.
Isolation vs. quarantine
According to Fearing, isolation and quarantine aren’t interchangeable terms.
Isolation is for workers who have been, or are likely to have been, exposed to COVID. It should last 10 days from the onset of symptoms and last until the person has gone 24 hours without a fever of 100.4+ without the use of fever reducing medication and other symptoms have improved (loss of taste and smell may persist for weeks or months and need not delay the end of isolation).
Quarantine means a worker must stay at home, and away from others, if exposed to COVID by being within 6 feet of someone diagnosed with the virus for 15 minutes within a 24-hour period. CDC guidance says these individuals should stay home for 14 days after last contact with a person who has COVID-19 and watch for fever (100.4°F), cough, shortness of breath or other symptoms.
As part of the COVID NEP, employers will be penalized for retaliating against workers that alert OSHA to possible hazards in their workplace.
“Since COVID-19 started, OSHA has had nearly 500 inspections that have taken place as a result of employee complaints where retaliation has been part of the problem,” said Fearing, who advised against directly addressing conversations that workers have with outside agencies because it’s the right of the worker to do so.
Some moves that could count as retaliation in OSHA’s eyes:
- denial of promotion
- denial of overtime
- denial of benefits
- reduction in pay or hours
- intimidation or threats
- failure to hire or rehire, or
- reassignment that negatively impacts promotion prospects.
So be careful with any disciplinary action that could look like it’s in response to someone filing an OSHA complaint and get familiar with the OSHA whistleblower program.
Employers in OSHA state plan states that don’t already have enforcement plans may want to take a proactive look at the federal NEP to see what they might be in for. “The state plan states have until May 12 to make a decision on what they’re going to do and how they’re going to implement that particular program,” he said.