The pandemic as it is now – with vaccines being rolled out, new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and states relaxing COVID-19 rules – is vastly different than it was just three months ago. What does all this change mean for workplace safety? A lot, and it’s complicated.
OK, the pandemic has been challenging from the start, but the changes introduced when vaccinations became available pose all sorts of new questions, including: If workers are vaccinated, are masks still necessary? What do I do if my state relaxed precautions, but my company still requires them? If my state relaxed precautions, will that matter to OSHA?
Vaccines and masks
The CDC issued new guidance March 8 regarding a slight lifting of restrictions on individuals who have been fully vaccinated.
This new guidance means fully vaccinated individuals can:
- gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask
- gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household – relatives who all live together, for example – without masks, unless any of those people, or anyone they live with, has an increased risk for severe illness from COVID, and
- refrain from quarantining or getting tested for COVID-19 if you’ve been around someone with the virus unless you have symptoms.
What does this mean for the worksite? In short, if everyone “working on your floor or in your group has been fully vaccinated, you can gather together without wearing masks,” according to law firm Breazeale Sachse & Wilson.
But even if you’ve been fully vaccinated precautions still need to be taken, so you should still wear a mask and practice social distancing in public, avoid medium or large gatherings, delay domestic and international travel, and continue to monitor yourself for COVID-19 symptoms.
‘Open state’ issues
According to CNN, as of March 10, 16 states either let mask mandates expire or never had them in place to begin with, including:
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- Tennessee, and
However, some major corporations such as Hyatt Hotels, Target, Starbucks and CVS Health stated they have no plans to drop mask requirements in any of these states.
“These businesses are likely on the ‘right’ side of the debate in the opinion of the agencies that regulate workplace safety standards,” according to law firm Shawe Rosenthal.
Employers can still require masks even if a state dropped its mandate, but companies who do need to be prepared to deal with challenges to the requirement from employees, clients or customers.
Suggestions for dealing with challenges from clients or customers include:
- making sure mask requirements are clearly communicated via signage
- if in retail, continue curbside pickup, personal shopping services and home delivery to provide alternatives for masking opponents, and
- training employees to recognize potential threats and defuse tense situations.
Employees present a different sort of challenge, so be prepared to clearly communicate expectations and try to get buy-in from upper management as early as possible.
“The ‘safest’ choice is to continue to follow the CDC’s and OSHA’s recommendations” since failure to do so could leave an employer open to a General Duty Clause violation,” according to Shawe Rosenthal.