In a Jan. 29 news conference, OSHA announced new, more direct COVID-19 guidance and said an emergency temporary standard (ETS) is still being discussed.
OSHA officials said they feel the new guidance is more direct in calling for employers to take action in protecting workers from COVID-19 than previous guidance from the Trump administration and asks employers to consult employees in creating COVID hazard assessments.
Jim Frederick, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA, stated this is the Biden administration’s first steps into providing ongoing guidance on COVID-19 and that the agency “doesn’t yet have the outline of what an ETS might look like, should we consider to go there, so that is something we are deliberating about and will be working on.”
Differences in guidance
The new guidance calls for employers to implement a coronavirus protection program and recommends:
- conducting a hazard assessment
- identifying control measures to limit the spread of the virus
- adopting policies for employee absences that don’t punish workers as a way to encourage potentially infected workers to remain home
- ensuring coronavirus policies and procedures are communicated to English and non-English speaking workers, and
- implementing protections for workers who raise coronavirus-related concerns.
According to OSHA Senior Advisor Ann Rosenthal, the new guidance differs from the Trump administration’s guidance in several ways, including:
- It doesn’t have the pyramid of risk the Trump administration guidance had, because “we think everybody should be protected, not that some workers should be protected more than others.”
- The new guidance calls for involving workers in every process of developing and implementing an employer’s COVID prevention plan, because “workers are the best help in a hazard assessment … they are the people who know what they’re exposed to” and can help find ways to mitigate exposure while still getting the job done.
- There’s no language that says an employer “should consider” certain actions, but instead says employers “should do” these things.
Reporting work-related COVID cases
Rosenthal also reaffirmed that work-related cases of COVID-19 must be reported in injury/illness logs “whether they are missed work day cases or fatalities.”
She acknowledged that was the prior guidance as well, but that the new guidance “emphasizes it a bit more.”
While Rosenthal was adamant the new guidelines are not something OSHA can enforce, she did clarify that the guidance can “help inform” enforcement by pointing to specific standards or the General Duty Clause.
OSHA is also streamlining the process for issuing COVID-related citations, according to Rosenthal, who said one of the biggest problems during the Trump administration was “there were so many levels of review for any COVID-related citation.”
Under the Biden administration, OSHA is working on removing those roadblocks.
Safety organizations issued quick praise for the new OSHA guidance.
A statement from the National Safety Council said, “NSC has been urging the federal government to provide employers with a roadmap for handling the pandemic. We are grateful to see this support come through, and we are reassured it will be updated as developments in science, best practices and standards warrant.”
“It’s encouraging to see a heightened commitment to protecting workers across all industries,” said American Society of Safety Professionals President Deborah Roy.