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OSHA Issues Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace

RICHARD REICE
FEBRUARY 3, 2021


Last week, at the urging of the Biden administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued new COVID-19-related recommendations pertaining to work and workplace safety. As the agency points out, the Guidance is not a formal standard or regulation, but rather a group of advisory recommendations. Regardless, it is sure to become the metric by which employers’ COVID-19 workplace safety measures are judged. Further, all or part of the Guidance may be a precursor to an enforceable emergency temporary standard to be issued by OSHA, perhaps in the coming weeks.

A Multifaceted Approach to COVID Mitigation

The Guidance, which formalizes much of what is now common practice in workplaces nationwide, calls on employers to implement COVID-19 prevention programs that incorporate the following elements:

  1. Assignment of a coordinator to oversee COVID-19 policies and mitigation efforts.
  2. Identification of workplace locations where workers can be exposed to COVID-19, and implementation of a combination of measures to limit the spread of the virus, such as PPE usage, social distancing and frequent handwashing—even if an employee or visitor has been vaccinated.
  3. Adoption of measures to ensure that workers infected (or potentially infected) are separated and sent home from the workplace. The Guidance further lists a number of specific recommendations regarding isolation protocols, including who should be quarantined after exposure and who should be cleared to return to work.
  4. Protections for higher risk associates by way of “support” policies, such as working from home or locating workstations to less dense, better ventilated locations.
  5. Systems for communicating with workers about COVID-19 hazards and procedures.
  6. Employee training regarding COVID-19 policies and procedures in language employees will understand, assuming a multi-lingual workplace, and a means of tracking which workers have been notified of the policies and procedures and when notification was given.
  7. A policy to instruct workers exposed to or infected with COVID-19 to stay home and quarantine.
  8. Minimization of the negative impact of quarantine or worker isolation, including the provision of paid leave and benefits or salary continuation pursuant to the Coronavirus Response Act.
  9. Isolation of workers showing symptoms of COVID-19 at work.
  10. Enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols (as specified in the Guidance) after a worker is suspected of having COVID-19.
  11. Provision of guidance to workers regarding screening and COVID-19 testing.
  12. Adherence to previously established OSHA standards. For example, Section 12 of the Guidance makes clear that an applicable employer must—consistent with previously established mandatory OSHA regulations—record work-related cases of COVID-19 on an OSHA Injury and Illness Form 300 log. More specifically, if an employer, such as a hospital or manufacturer, is obligated to maintain a Form 300, then it must report if a worker has a confirmed case of COVID-19, in which case it must be specified whether the exposure occurred at work, even if a home office or while in the field (note that this is a most challenging determination given that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to determine where a worker has become infected with COVID-19). It must also be stated on the Form 300 whether the worker requires time off from work or medical treatment.
  13. Policies that protect workers from retaliation for voicing concerns about an employer’s lack of COVID-19 infection control or adherence to the Guidance. This protection must be in place regardless of whether issues are raised in person (directly to an employer), via social media or otherwise. The Guidance recommends that employers establish a hotline or another anonymous mechanism for employees to report unsafe conditions, such as co-workers not wearing PPE and the like.
  14. Provision of COVID-19 vaccines at no cost to employees (a recommendation that, at present, is aspirational at best).
  15. Assurance that even vaccinated employees will adhere to PPE and social distancing protocols until medical evidence suggests that such measures are no longer necessary.
  16. Adherence to all other applicable and enforceable OSHA standards, including those that pertain to respiratory protection, sanitation, medical records, and, of course, the General Duty Clause that requires every employer to provide a safe workplace.

Ventilation, PPE, Hygiene

The Guidance also addresses workplace ventilation and refers to the ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards for “Building Operations During the Covid-19 Pandemic.” These standards touch upon everything from opening windows, the careful placement of fans, improving HVAC filters, operating HVAC systems 24/7, and implementing ultraviolet germicidal irradiation in select spaces.

In terms of PPE and hygiene, it is likely that OSHA will establish workplace PPE standards dictating the mandatory issuance of PPE; the type of PPE to be utilized; and where, when, and how employees can or should wash their hands. As for the latter, it is expected that employers will be required to put up posters regarding proper COVID-19 hygiene protocols.

The Takeaway

Because OSHA’s recommendations are, in all probability, a harbinger of things to come, employers would be wise to familiarize themselves with the Guidance in order to plan for the future and put in place (or enhance already established) work rules.


We are working diligently to keep our clients up to date on coronavirus-related developments. Nevertheless, these developments are changing daily and, in some cases even hourly, so it is important that you make sure you are dealing with the most current information. That being said, this alert is not offered, and should not be relied on, as legal advice. You should consult an attorney for guidance and counsel regarding any specific concern or situation.