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Updated Guidance on Coronavirus in the Workplace

President Joe Biden’s Direction to OSHA

Shortly after President Joe Biden was sworn into office as the 46th President of the United States, he directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) to issue “clear guidance for employers” in an effort to further protect workers from exposure to COVID-19. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (the “Act”), employers are responsible for establishing and providing safe and healthy workplaces for employees. COVID-19 is no exception. In doing so, OSHA’s role is to help ensure such conditions are provided by “setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education, and assistance.”

Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace

On January 29, 2021, in accordance with President Biden’s directive, OSHA released additional guidance in hopes of assisting employers in mitigating and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. “This guidance is intended to inform employers and workers in most workplace settings outside of healthcare to help them identify risks of being exposed to and/or contracting COVID-19 at work and to help them determine appropriate control measures to implement.” OSHA also provides industry-specific guidance, whereas the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) offers guidance for healthcare and emergency response workplaces. OSHA’s guidance addresses both the workers’ and the employer’s role in implementing and following the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

What Workers Need to Know about COVID-19 Protections in the Workplace

OSHA recommends that workers remain at least six (6) feet apart while in the workplace; practice good personal hygiene (i.e., washing hands, covering mouth when coughing or sneezing, monitoring health, etc.); and that face coverings be worn while in the workplace. The OSHA guidance also details the reasons face masks are a crucial element in protecting workers from and preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The Roles of Employers and Workers in Responding to COVID-19

Under the Act, “[e]mployers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Thus, in addition to the aforementioned COVID-19 precautions for workers, OSHA also recommends that employers implement a COVID-19 Prevention Program. The OSHA guidance then lists sixteen (16) elements that make up an effective program.

The elements provided for an effective COVID-19 Prevention Program include: (1) assigning a workplace coordinator; (2) identifying where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work; (3) identifying a combination of measures that will limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, in line with principles of the hierarchy of controls; (4) considering protections for workers at higher risk for severe illness through supportive policies and practices; (5) establishing a system for communicating effectively with workers and in a language they understand; (6) educating and training workers on the COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in a language they understand; (7) instructing workers who are infected or potentially infected to stay home and isolate or quarantine; (8) minimizing the negative impact of quarantine and isolation on workers; (9) isolating workers who show symptoms at work; (10) performing enhanced cleaning and disinfection after people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 have been in the facility; (11) providing guidance on screening and testing; (12) recording and reporting COVID-19 infections and deaths; (13) implementing protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns about COVID-19-related hazards; (14) making a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available at no cost to all eligible employees; (15) not distinguishing between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not; and (16) following other OSHA standards.

Additional Detail on Key Measures for Limiting the Spread

In addition to the foregoing recommendations for workers and employers, the updated OSHA guidance also details other elements that will assist in protecting workers from and preventing the spread of COVID-19. Many of the “additional” items are addressed in some form in the previous sections. However, the recommended measures include (1) separating and sending home infected or potentially infected workers; (2) implementing physical distancing in communal work areas; (3) installing barriers when physical distancing is not possible; (4) providing face coverings and/or otherwise wearing face coverings; (5) improving ventilation; (6) using personal protective equipment when necessary; (7) providing supplies for good hygiene practices; and (8) performing routing cleaning and disinfection.

If you feel your rights have been violated, you are not safe in your work environment, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady Michel & King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724. We are here to serve you.