New OSHA obligations for a post-COVID 19 world

As employers begin looking beyond the immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and start thinking of bringing people back to work, they will be wise to realize the new virus means permanent changes related to their obligation to provide a safe workplace. It is a new day in terms of keeping workers safe. ]

While the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not reference the coronavirus or COVID-19 and no specific regulation addresses it, the Act’s General Duty Clause requires employers to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards. In March, the virus was formally identified as a recognized hazard in the workplace, meaning employers are obligated to take steps to prevent employees from transmitting the disease at work. 

OSHA has been issuing various documents in recent weeks, including an enforcement plan released April 13 intended as guidance for its area directors as they prioritize complaints about workplace exposures. The guidance also lets employers know what they can expect in terms of agency inspections and enforcement. Employers need to evaluate the nature of the coronavirus hazard in their workplaces, and they need to understand that it is pervasive. ]

Decisions on what steps to take will have to be made case by case and what makes the most sense for your business, but examples of steps to incorporate in a plan may include screening employees for fever, putting out questionnaires, testing employees for the virus on a regular basis, preventing anyone testing positive from entering the workplace, sending infected workers home, doing contact tracing within the workplace, and educating employees. Businesses may also need to institute engineering controls, protective coverings, enforcing six-foot distance rules and requiring face masks. Businesses and employers will have to have plans for different kinds of employees based on potential exposure risk. 

Putting an effective plan in place can help employers stay in operation by not losing employees to sickness or quarantine and can keep workers’ compensation insurance rates down. 
In addition to OSHA’S April 13 enforcement plan, the agency released a policy on April 16 outlining discretion in enforcement of agency standards when employers act in good faith during the COVID-19 crisis available at osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3990.pdf.