On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of a previously unidentified novel coronavirus, now called SARS-CoV-2, to be a public health emergency of international concern.
One day later, the United States followed suit and declared a public health emergency for all US states and territories. The disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is now known as COVID-19, which is an abbreviation for coronavirus disease 2019.
Employer Responsibilities For Public Health Emergency Under OSH Act General Duty Clause
When a public health emergency is declared, employers are required to “provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
OSHA may cite any employer for violating the OSH Act General Duty Clause if there is a recognized hazard and that employer does not take “reasonable steps to prevent or abate the hazard.“
OSHA offers guidance for employers to prepare workplaces for an influenza (flu) pandemic. While COVID-19 is not a flu, it is flu-like, as it causes an infectious respiratory illness.
And, while COVID-19 has not yet officially been declared a pandemic, OSHA guidance, if followed, will help to protect employees’ health as well as limit impacts on society and the economy.
Elements of OSHA’s Guidance For Coronavirus
OSHA’s guidance relies on traditional infection control and industrial hygiene practices, which include:
- Good hygiene. Remind employees when and how to wash their hands (often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds), or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Cough and sneeze etiquette. Remind employees not to cough into their bare hands. Shield coughs and sneezes with a tissue, elbow, or shoulder.
- Social distancing. “Social distancing means reducing the frequency, proximity, and duration of contact between people (both employees and customers) to reduce the chances of spreading… from person-to-person”. Methods that increase the physical distance between people can often be implemented in the workplace. One example, when feasible, is replacing in-person meetings with video or teleconferences. Limiting the size of group sessions by having multiple meetings but with fewer people attending at one time is another example. The CDC suggests a distance of 3-6 feet between people.
- Encourage employees to leave work or stay home if they are experiencing respiratory symptoms. With COVID-19, symptoms are coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath, and/or a temperature above 100.4 degrees F.
- Stay up-to-date on new and developing public health information. This can be done by frequently visiting both the OSHA COVID-19 website and the CDC Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19)
- Communicate company policies and practices to employees during the outbreak.
- Use engineering controls, administrative controls, and PPE. See the separate discussion below.
Videos, posters, fact sheets, stickers, podcasts, and many other resources are available to employers for use in the workplace to teach/remind employees when and how to effectively wash their hands, use proper cough and sneeze etiquette, and more.
Use of Engineering and Administrative Controls
Implementation of engineering and administrative controls ranges from simple to complex, depending on the size and nature of your business.
With a virus, especially during the initial outbreak, engineering controls, such as physical barriers between people, are not always practical. nor can they be implemented quickly.
Administrative controls, such as developing a method for answering employees’ concerns that do not require in-person communication, or postponing employee travel plans, can be implemented rapidly.
Use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
As you may already know, OSHA requires employers to assess their workplace “to determine if hazards are present or are likely to be present which necessitate the use of PPE.”
Also, the proper selection, use, and disposal of PPE such as gloves, goggles, face shields, masks, and respirators in workplaces during a viral outbreak are just as critical as when dealing with other airborne contaminants in the workplace.
Likelihood of Employee Occupational Exposure to Coronavirus
Concerning the likelihood of employees’ occupational exposure to pandemic flu, OSHA has divided workplaces and work operation into four risk zones: very high, high, medium, lower risk (caution).
The administration further states that “employers are obligated to provide their employees with protective gear needed to keep them safe while performing their jobs. The types of PPE recommended for pandemic influenza will be based on the risk of contracting influenza while working and the availability of PPE.”
As of March 7, there is no published guidance from OSHA. However, the CDC has said:
CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. You should only wear a mask if a healthcare professional recommends it.
A facemask should be used by people who have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms. This is to protect others from the risk of getting infected. The use of facemasks also is crucial for health workers and other people who are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in close settings.
Important note: If you are supplying N-95 respirators, or any other type of respirators to your employees, OSHA’s respirator standard requires the following:
- program administration;
- worksite-specific procedures;
- respirator selection;
- employee training;
- fit testing;
- medical evaluation; and,
- respirator use, cleaning, maintenance, and repair.
For more information on resources businesses can use now or to prepare for future outbreaks or emergencies, see the CDC’s Business Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist.
About Worksite Medical
In most cases, OSHA requires medical surveillance testing, and at no cost to employees.
Worksite Medical makes that program easier with mobile medical testing.
We conduct on-site respirator fit tests, as well as pulmonary function test and heavy metal lab work, right on your job site. We also keep accurate, easy-to-access medical records for your convenience. You’ll keep your employees at work, and stay ahead of OSHA inspections.
With Worksite Medical, a mobile medical testing unit — we can bring all the resources of a lab to you. Our certified lab technicians can perform both qualitative and quantitative respirator tests to ensure a perfect fit.
Protect your team and your workplace now with Worksite Medical. Not sure what you need? Try our medical testing wizard here.
Give us a call at 1-844-622-8633, or complete the form below to schedule an on-site visit or to get your free quote!