The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was enacted “to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women; by authorizing enforcement of the standards developed under the Act.” With the Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) was established as part of the United States Department of Labor.
In the context of COVID-19, OSHA recently released its Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. The Guidance is “advisory in nature, informational in content, and intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace.” Compliance as a standard or regulation is not mandatory. It does, however, provide a perspective of how the workplace can be made safer. It also stresses the importance of planning now, even if one’s employees have not yet returned to the workplace. The Guidance is based on traditional infection prevention and industrial hygiene practices. As a planning tool, the Guidance is useful in identifying risk levels in the workplace and implementing appropriate control measures. Additional Guidance may arise as more information becomes available.
At the current time, the COVID-19 virus is known to spread from person-to-person through close contact (thus the recommendation for 6 feet social distancing), and through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. If the droplets enter the mouth or nose of another individual, it can be inhaled through the lungs leading to an infection. The most up-to-date information about COVID-19 transmission is available on the CDC website.
Some highlights from the Guidance on COVID-19 include:
- Develop an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan: This includes an evaluation of:
- The level of risk for exposure at particular worksites with respect to specific job duties.
- Employee risk factors such as older age or immunocompromised state
- External factors that relate to exposure of employees while at home or in their community.
Finally, each workplace should implement a system or “hierarchy of controls” as techniques for addressing COVID-19. These do not solely rely on the employee but rather a system for safety. These include:
- Engineering Controls: reducing exposure, if appropriate, with measures like high-efficiency filters or increasing ventilation rates.
- Administrative Controls: implementing policies that encourage sick workers to stay home, staggering shifts, or perform remote office work.
- Safe Work Practices: encourage hand washing, good hygiene, cleaning and maintenance of office environment.
- Personal Protective Equipment: This category includes gloves, goggles, face shields, face masks. The type of equipment is based on the risk of exposure. At the highest levels of risk, for example, working within 6 feet of individuals suspected of being infected with the COVID-19 virus, the N95 filtering facepiece respirator or better should be used.
For assistance in identifying your workplace’s level of risk, please consult OSHA’s Guidance directly.