New OSHA Guidance for Employers on COVID-19

March 16, 2020

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, commonly known as coronavirus, a pandemic. As of March 17, 2020, there are 4,661 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, 48 of which are in Wisconsin. In the midst of this evolving health crisis, employers have many questions about what they can do to prepare their workplaces and ensure the safety of their employees, clients, and customers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) issued a guidance to answer employers’ questions and help with this process. The guidance does not create any new legal obligations or standards of regulation. Rather, it is designed to answer employers’ common questions and provide helpful recommendations for employers to implement. This article contains a summary of what employers should know about preparing their workplaces and employees for this pandemic.

To implement effective policies and procedures in response to coronavirus, it is critical for employers to understand how the virus is spread and the symptoms it causes. Coronavirus is believed to spread primarily through person-to-person contact between those in close proximity, namely those within six feet of one another. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, it creates respiratory droplets that can be inhaled or ingested by others nearby. It is also believed that one can contract coronavirus by touching an infected surface and subsequently touching their eyes, nose, or mouth. However, it is less common for coronavirus to spread in this manner. When one is infected with coronavirus, they may experience symptoms such as a fever, a cough, and shortness of breath. Based on what is currently known about how coronavirus is spread, OSHA recommends that all employers take the steps identified below wherever possible.

Develop an Infectious Diseases Preparedness and Response Plan

The purpose of an infectious diseases preparedness and response plan is to consider and address the various levels of risk associated with the tasks your employees perform on a daily basis. You should think about how your employees could be exposed to coronavirus, including through contact with the general public, customers, and co-workers, and account for those who are sick or at a particularly high risk of infection. Elderly individuals and individuals with compromised immune systems and respiratory illnesses are at a higher risk for contracting coronavirus. Look to federal, state, and local guidelines and recommendations related to coronavirus and incorporate these standards wherever possible.

Implement and Promote Basic Infection Prevention Measures

You should encourage all of your employees to wash their hands frequently with antibacterial soap for twenty seconds at a time. Ensure that all wash areas are equipped with antibacterial hand soap and disposable paper towels for employee, customer, and client use. At worksites where running water is not available, provide alcohol-based hand sanitizer or hand wipes containing at least 60% alcohol. The best practice is to encourage frequent hand washing while simultaneously offering hand sanitizer or hand wipes in common areas such as lobbies, break rooms, copy rooms, and watercooler areas.

You should also remind your employees to cover coughs and sneezes with facial tissue where possible, or with an arm or elbow when facial tissue is not available. Make facial tissue and no-touch trash receptacles readily available for employee, customer, and client use. You and your employees should disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched on a daily basis. Discourage employees from using computers, telephones, and other work equipment that is not their own wherever possible. Although not possible in all work places, employers should consider whether they can implement a work from home policy or staggered shifts to increase the physical distance among their employees. Finally, employees should be encouraged to stay home if they are sick and should not be penalized for doing so.

Develop Procedures for Identifying and Isolating Sick Employees

According to OSHA, it is critical to promptly identify and isolate potentially infectious employees to prevent coronavirus from spreading in the workplace. However, employers must remain cognizant of existing obligations under federal, state, and local law including but not limited to privacy, reasonable accommodation, and fair employment.

Implement Workplace Flexibilities and Protections

Governor Tony Evers announced that beginning on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, all K-12 schools in the State of Wisconsin will be closed.  Accordingly, as more employees stay home from work it is important to ensure sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and with federal and state law.  Further, if you contract with companies who provide independent contractors or temporary workers, communicate with these companies and encourage those who are sick to stay home.

Employees should also be provided with appropriate training and education about health and safety, health insurance coverage, pay, leave, and other issues that may arise during the outbreak. The more information you provide to your employees, the safer they will feel in the workplace, and the less likely they are to be unnecessarily absent from work.

Risk Levels

A common question your employees will have relates to their risk of contracting coronavirus in the workplace. Your employees’ risk level depends on the type of industry, the likelihood of coming within six feet of people known to be, or suspected to be, infected with coronavirus, or the requirement for repeated contact with people known to be, or suspected to be, infected with coronavirus. To help employers educate employees and answer employees’ questions related to workplace risk exposure, OSHA has created an occupational risk pyramid with the following categories: lower risk (caution), medium, high, and very high. Most employees within the United States will fall into the lower risk (caution) and medium risk levels.

Those with a very high risk of exposure include employees who are most likely to be exposed to known or suspected sources of coronavirus during medical, postmortem, or laboratory procedures. Such employees include healthcare personnel performing aerosol-generating procedures on known or suspected coronavirus patients, laboratory personnel collecting or handling specimens from known or suspected coronavirus patients, and morgue workers performing autopsies on bodies of those known to have or suspected to have coronavirus at the time of death.

Those with a high risk of exposure include employees with a high potential for exposure to known or suspected sources of coronavirus. Such employees include healthcare delivery support staff exposed to known or suspected coronavirus patients, medical transport workers moving known or suspected coronavirus patients, and mortuary workers involved in preparing the bodies of those known to have or suspected to have coronavirus at the time of death.

Those with a medium risk of exposure include employees whose job tasks require frequent or close contact with people who may be infected with coronavirus, but who are not known or suspected coronavirus patients. Close contact means coming within six feet of other individuals. Employees in this category include those who have frequent contact with travelers who have returned from locations with widespread coronavirus transmission and those who have contact with the general public, such as in schools or retail settings.

Those with a low risk of exposure include employees whose jobs do not require frequent or close contact with people who may be infected with coronavirus, but who are not known or suspected coronavirus patients. Close contact means coming within six feet of other individuals. Employees in this category have minimal contact with the public and other coworkers.

Protecting Employees in the Lower Exposure Risk (Caution) Category

When it comes to protecting employees in the lower exposure risk (caution) category, OSHA recommends implementing the precautions described above directed toward all employers. Employers should continue to monitor local, state, and federal public health communications regarding coronavirus and ensure that all employees have access to this information. This information can be effectively communicated through an office-wide email, memorandum, or bulletin.

Protecting Employees in the Medium Exposure Risk Category

Additional precautions should be taken with respect to employees who fall into the medium exposure risk category. Employers should install physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards, where possible. Face masks should be offered to sick employees, customers, and clients to help contain respiratory secretions until they are able to leave the workplace. Employers should inform customers and clients about coronavirus symptoms and ask that they minimize contact with employees until they are healthy. Where possible, limit public access to the workplace and provide services to customers and clients in a manner that does not require them to come in contact with your employees. Advise employees of the availability of coronavirus screening and other medical services.

OSHA further recommends certain Personal Protective Equipment (“PPE”) for medium risk employees. Medium risk employees may need to wear some combination of gloves, a gown, a face mask or face shield, and goggles. PPE will vary based on work task and the types of exposure these employees have while on the job.

Bottom Line

The coronavirus is a public health crisis that should be taken seriously. However, the spread of this illness in the workplace can be minimized. Because the situation is ever-evolving, ensure that you are up to date on the most recent guidelines and recommendations, implementing them where appropriate, and keep employees informed and up to date. Knowledge and precautionary measures are the keys to prevention.