On August 13th, 2021, the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released updated COVID-19 safety guidance. Issued earlier in January, the safety guidance helped employers implement a coronavirus prevention program and identify workplace exposure risks. Subsequently, on June 10th, 2021, OSHA updated the guidance to focus mainly on unvaccinated workers. Previously, in July, OSHA revised its workplace COVID-19 enforcement policies for when the agency receives reports of workplace COVID-19 violations.
Overview of the Previous Guidance
Overall, the OSHA release provides guidance and recommendations and outlines existing safety and health standards. Generally, OSHA provided the recommendations to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace.
The most critical part of the guidance is the subject of coronavirus prevention programs. Explicitly, OSHA states that these programs are the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus. Presently, the OSHA guidance recommends several essential elements in a prevention program:
- Conduct a hazard assessment.
- Identify control measures to limit the spread of the virus.
- Adopt policies for employee absences that don’t punish workers as a way to encourage potentially infected workers to remain home.
- Ensure that coronavirus policies and procedures are understandable for both English and non-English speaking workers.
- Implement protections from retaliation for workers who raise coronavirus-related concerns.
Additionally, the guidance includes measures for limiting the coronavirus’s spread, including:
- ensuring infected or potentially infected people are not in the workplace;
- implementing and following physical distancing protocols;
- utilizing surgical masks or cloth face coverings;
- properly using personal protective equipment;
- improving ventilation;
- encouraging good hygiene; and
- performing routine cleaning.
New Additions to the Guidance
As a result of the recent changes, the updated COVID-19 safety guidance now includes the following:
- Updates reflecting the July 27th, 2021, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mask and testing recommendations for vaccinated people.
- A reorganization of recommendations for the manufacturing, meat and poultry processing, seafood processing, and agricultural processing industries.
- Additional links to new guidance with the most up-to-date content.
In conclusion, employers should know that the updated COVID-19 safety guidance is not a standard or regulation. Therefore, it creates no new legal obligations. It only contains recommendations as well as descriptions of existing mandatory safety and health standards. In summary, the recommendations are advisory in nature, informational in content, and will assist employers in recognizing and abating hazards. However, employers must remember that employers are generally responsible for providing safe workplaces under OSHA’s General Duty Clause. Given that, failure to comply with the General Duty Clause could lead to fines and penalties.