A New Administration Means New COVID-19 OSHA Guidelines. What Businesses Need to Know

The new guidelines have the potential to become the standards for protecting against infectious disease in the workplace.
By: | March 2, 2021

Mask wearing and social distancing are going to be staples of workplace safety for years to come, new guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suggests.

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In February, OSHA released a new report issuing guidance for employers on how to keep employees safe from COVID-19, and the guidelines recommend maintaining social distancing policies even as vaccination becomes more widespread.

The report, “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace,” compiles guidelines from the CDC and other public health organizations, offers recommendations to employers for mitigating the virus’s spread, and offers guidance on distributing the COVID-19 vaccine.

These guidelines have the potential to become the new infectious disease standard as businesses will have to continue navigating COVID-19 and its variants well into the future.

“This may become an overall infectious disease standard, because we’re going to be living with this, it sounds like in some way, shape or form, for the foreseeable future even after COVID-19,” said Jeff Corder, VP of loss control at AmTrust.

New Guidelines at a Glance

The report outlines 16 different guidelines for businesses in understanding their role in responding to the pandemic and mitigating the spread of COVID-19. These guidelines range from identifying the different risks a business may face to implementing the social distancing and mask-wearing policies recommended by the CDC.

Kelley Barnett, vice president, cooperate counsel, labor and employment, AmTrust

Guidelines include identifying a workplace coordinator who is responsible for COVID-19 issues, improving ventilation and educating workers on new policies.

Many of these guidelines aren’t new; mask-wearing and social distancing have been required by countless states as businesses reopen, and little of the report differs from guidance issued by the CDC.

“It takes you through in a step-by-step pretty methodical process,” Corder said. “If you have a safety background at all, it goes into mitigation too. So, trying to eliminate a hazard, then trying to mitigate the hazard, and then if you’re going to be around the hazard, how do you protect yourself with proper protection equipment.”

OSHA says that this new document is meant to serve as a resource for employers looking to plan their COVID-19 response.

In the report, it clarifies that no laws or regulations have been changed, but “the guidance also underscores the fact that businesses not only need to clearly communicate their policies relative to COVID-19, but they also need to educate and train their employees on those policies,” said Kelley Barnett, vice president, corporate counsel, labor and employment at AmTrust.

The report was spurred by a request from the Biden Administration, which directed the Secretary of Labor to issue revised guidance to employers on what workplace safety looks like during COVID-19.

Under the previous administration, OSHA was criticized for an interpretation of a regulation that made it so that employers were not required to report most, if not all, COVID-19 hospitalizations among their workforce. OSHA is now trying to streamline the process for issuing employer citations related to COVID-19.

“The Biden Administration has already issued an executive order telling OSHA, ‘You’ve got to increase your enforcement efforts,’ ” Barnett said.

President Biden has directed OSHA to issue any emergency temporary standards by March 15, Barnett said, so employers should make sure they’re looking for any new guidelines then.

Preparing for an OSHA Check-In

As OSHA prepares to streamline the process for issuing COVID-related citations, businesses should prepare themselves for surprise OSHA check-ins.

“I think there are a number of things that businesses can very easily do now to get ahead of and mitigate that risk,” Barnett said.

The new guidelines recommend that businesses implement a workplace COVID protection program. To meet this requirement, Barnett recommends that businesses put their COVID-safety procedures into writing and hold training for employees to make sure they adhere to new policies.

Jeff Corder, VP loss control, AmTrust.

“I think at a minimum what OSHA’s saying is that businesses need to formalize their COVID-19 policies. One way businesses can do that is by putting their policies into writing,” Barnett said.

Another way businesses can be prepared for a surprise OSHA visit is by having a designated contact person who can show officials around the facility and answer any questions they may have.

In their newly released COVID guidelines, OSHA recommends assigning a “workplace coordinator” who is responsible for communicating and managing safety policies related to COVID-19.

In addition to making sure workplaces are complying with COVID-19 safety measures, OSHA officials could fine businesses for other violations during surprise check-ins.

“Businesses should be walking around their floors to make sure that they’re OSHA compliant,” Barnett said.

“ OSHA Inspectors can go anywhere once on site,” Corder added. “[Businesses] need to, as Kelley said, get their house in order, from a safety standpoint, now. Don’t wait.”

Vaccination on the Horizon

With vaccines already being distributed to many essential worker and at-risk populations, employers are sure to have questions about the best ways to distribute vaccines.

“We’re getting a significant number of questions on how to treat vaccines and when they roll out across the country,” Corder said.

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In the last section of the report, OSHA provides some guidance on vaccine distribution within the workplace. They recommend that employers make the vaccine available at no cost to eligible employees and that they educate employees on the safety and efficacy of immunization.

Employers are allowed to require the COVID-19 vaccine, but Barnett recommends that they encourage rather than mandate inoculation.

Even once employees are vaccinated, social distancing and mask-wearing procedures will need to remain in place for some time. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, says that Americans may have to continue masking into 2022.

OSHA’s guidelines state that workplaces cannot segregate vaccinated and non-vaccinated employees, so workers need to be prepared to wear masks and keep their distance for the foreseeable future.

“Workers are still going to have to keep wearing face coverings, vaccinated or not,” Barnett said. &

Courtney DuChene is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]