In a year where it seems like the world has flipped upside down, it should come as no surprise that the Department of Labor is also changing some things. On January 29th, the Biden administration released new guidelines for workplaces in light of the COVID-19 pandemic to help revamp national protections for workers. Even so, it is important to remember that these changes are not standards or regulations nor do they create any legal obligations. In other words: They are just guidelines.
The Biden administration is considering whether or not to issue nationwide emergency temporary standards, which would carry legal requirements for employers. Currently, their aim is to inform employers and workers outside of the healthcare industry how to identify risks of exposure and what to do if exposure occurs.
The guidelines themselves are a set of 15 recommendations for the development and implementation of a workplace COVID-19 prevention program:
- Assignment of a workplace coordinator who will be responsible for COVID-19 issues on the employer’s behalf.
- Identification of where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work. This includes a thorough hazard assessment to identify potential workplace hazards related to COVID-19. This assessment will be most effective if it involves workers (and their representatives) because they are often the people most familiar with the conditions they face.
- Identification of a combination of measures that will limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, in line with the principles of the hierarchy of controls. This should include a combination of eliminating the hazard, engineering controls, workplace administrative policies, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other measures, prioritizing controls from most to least effective to protect workers from COVID-19 hazards. Key examples include:
- eliminating the hazard by separating and sending home infected or potentially infected people from the workplace;
- implementing physical distancing in all communal work areas (includes remote work and telework);
- installing barriers where physical distancing cannot be maintained;
- suppressing the spread of the hazard using face coverings;
- improving ventilation;
- using applicable PPE to protect workers from exposure;
- providing the supplies necessary for good hygiene practices; and
- performing routine cleaning and disinfection.
- Consideration of protections for workers at higher risk for severe illness through supportive policies and practices. Older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Workers with disabilities may be legally entitled to “reasonable accommodations” that protect them from the risk of contracting COVID-19.
- Establishment of a system for communicating effectively with workers and in a language they understand. Ask workers to report to the employer, without fear of reprisal (see #12 below), COVID-19 symptoms, possible COVID-19 exposures, and possible COVID-19 hazards at the workplace.
- Educate and train workers on your COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in a language they understand. Instruct workers who are infected or potentially infected to stay home and isolate or quarantine to prevent or reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19. Ensure that absence policies are nonpunitive.
- Minimize the negative impact of quarantine and isolation on workers. When possible, allow them to telework or work in an area isolated from others.
- Isolating workers who show symptoms at work.
- Performing enhanced cleaning and disinfection after people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 have been in the facility.
- Providing guidance on screening and testing.
- Recording and reporting COVID-19 infections and deaths: Employers are responsible for recording work-related cases of COVID-19 illness on their Form 300 logs if the following requirements are met:
(1) the case is a confirmed case of COVID-19;(2) the case is work-related and(3) the case involves one or more relevant recording criteria (e.g., medical treatment, days away from work).
Employers must follow the requirements in 29 CFR 1904 when reporting COVID-19 fatalities and hospitalizations to OSHA. More information is available on OSHA’s website. Employers should also report outbreaks to health departments as required and support their contact tracing efforts.
- Implementing protections from retaliation and setting up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns about COVID-19-related hazards.
- Making a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available at no cost to all eligible employees. Provide information and training on the benefits and safety of vaccinations.
- Do not distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.They should follow the same procedures and be treated equally.
- Follow current OSHA standards that are already in place.
The establishment of a COVID-19 specific program in the workplace should be a key goal moving forward regardless of whether it is government mandated or not. It is another proactive form of risk management that can help reduce the impact of future events.