OSHA has released a full handbook of suggestions that serve as guidance for those reopening businesses and returning to work. This guidance is not a mandatory set of regulations or standards, and it does not impose new legal obligations. Instead, it contains recommendations, which are advisory in nature and are intended to assist employers in providing safe and healthful workplace. Also, the guidance contains descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards to provide further explanation.
OSHA requires employers to comply with the standards and regulations implemented by OSHA or by a state with an OSHA-approved state plan. Also, the General Duty Clause, found within Section 5(a) of the Act, requires employers to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious harm. Therefore, under this provision, employers have a duty to protect employees from the risk of infection of COVID-19.
This guidance issued by OSHA is designed to assist employers and workers in safely returning to work and reopening businesses deemed “non-essential” during the Coronavirus pandemic. It is intended to supplement the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ previously developed Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 and the White House’s Guidelines for Opening up American Again.
Employers are encouraged to use this guidance to develop their own policies and procedures to ensure the health and safety of their employees. It focuses on the necessity for employers to develop and implement strategies for basic hygiene, social distancing, identification and isolation of sick employees, workplace controls and flexibilities, and employee training. Reopening non-essential businesses should follow the gradual lifting of stay-at-home orders and other specific requirements provided by the Federal Government and state, local, tribal, and/or territorial governments across the United States. Further, reopening should comply with CDC and other federal regulatory agencies. Continuous monitoring of these mandates and protocols is encouraged as they update and evolve in response to COVID-19.
Planning for Reopening
All employers should monitor SLTT health department communications to understand the progression their communities are making through reopening phases set forth by the Guidelines for Opening up America Again. Here, principles for relaxing restrictions that were put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 are given. It is suggested employers should continue to consider ways to utilize workplace flexibilities, such as remote work, and alternative procedures and services to customers (e.g., curbside pickup).
Employers should implement strategies that are appropriate for each phase of reopening. In general, during each phase, employers should consider the following:
- Phase 1: Businesses should make available remote work when possible and feasible with business operations. Employees returning to the workplace should maintain strict social distancing policies. Employers should further consider extending special accommodations to workers who are high risk of severe illness or workers who have high risk household members. Non-essential business travel should be limited.
- Phase 2: Businesses should continue remote work when possible but non-essential business travel may resume. Limitations on number of people in the workplace can be eased, however strict social distancing practices should be maintained. Employers should continue to accommodate vulnerable workers identified in Phase 1.
- Phase 3: Businesses resume unrestricted staffing of work sites.
Based on evolving conditions regarding COVID-19, employers reopening business should have plans that address the following:
- Hazard Assessment: assess all job tasks and practices and determine the likeliness of increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Also, consider exposure from members of the public with whom workers interact and consider current outbreak conditions in the community.
- Hygiene: provide soap, water, paper towels for workers, customers, and visitors to wash their hands, and encourage frequent handwashing for at least 20 seconds at a time. Also, provide hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Finally, identify high-traffic areas and frequently touched surfaces and frequently disinfect these areas in adherence to CDC guidance.
- Social Distancing: maximize practice of maintaining a safe distance between all workers, customers, and visitors of business when possible. Six feet distance is the general rule, however social distancing practices may change as communities move through reopening phases. Ways to social distance include limiting occupancy, arrange desks, tables, check-out lines, restrooms, etc., in six-feet zones, and post signage to remind people to social distance.
- Identification and isolation of sick employees: ask employees to evaluate themselves for signs/symptoms of COVID-19 before coming to work and encourage them to stay home they are not feeling well. Also, establish a protocol for managing people who become sick in the workplace and establish isolating area in the event that person cannot leave right away.
- Return to work after illness or exposure: follow CDC guidance for proper ways to return to work after self-quarantine following exposure to COVID-19.
- Controls: implement physical barriers/shields to separate workers, install enhanced ventilation systems, stagger work shifts, limit breakroom capacity, replace in-person meetings with video-conference calls, ensuring people wear face masks, and more to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
- Workplace Flexibilities: evaluate existing policies and consider new ways to encourage remote working, flexible sick leaves, and other options that reduce the risk of exposure to the corona virus.
- Training: train workers about what measures to take to minimize risk of exposure to COVID-19, such as educating about the signs, symptoms, and risk factors associated with the virus.
Further provided within these guidelines are answers provided to frequently asked questions by employers. To summarize, employers are permitted to conduct COVID-19 testing and work site temperature checks because they can explore practices that reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19. Also, to know if employees need personal protective equipment (PPE), employers must conduct a hazard assessment in accordance to OSHA’s PPE standards.