In the many months since the pandemic hit the United States, workplace health and safety rules have varied wildly from state to state. On January 21, 2021, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety. This executive order called on the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to issue revised guidance, review OSHA’s current enforcement efforts, and launch a national effort to focus on enforcement.
The executive order noted that “Ensuring the health and safety of workers is a national priority and a moral imperative. Healthcare workers and other essential workers, many of whom are people of color and immigrants, have put their lives on the line during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. It is the policy of my Administration to protect the health and safety of workers from COVID-19.”
President Biden called for these new regulations within two weeks, and on January 29, the DOL complied.
COVID-19 Prevention Programs
According to the DOL press release, OSHA “issued stronger worker safety guidance to help employers and workers implement a coronavirus prevention program and better identify risks which could lead to exposure and contraction.” In addition to updated recommendations, the guidance outlines existing safety standards and provides methods for employers to provide safer and healthier work environments.
“More than 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions of people are out of work as a result of this crisis. Employers and workers can help our nation fight and overcome this deadly pandemic by committing themselves to making their workplaces as safe as possible,” said M. Patricia Smith, senior counselor to the Secretary of Labor. “The recommendations in OSHA’s updated guidance will help us defeat the virus, strengthen our economy and bring an end to the staggering human and economic toll that the coronavirus has taken on our nation.”
To reduce the virus’s spread, OSHA recommends that employers create and implement COVID-19 Prevention Programs in their workplaces. These programs would include the following:
- naming a workplace coordinator who is responsible for monitoring all COVID-19 issues
- identifying how and where employees can be exposed to the virus at work
- identifying and implementing ways to limit the spread of the virus in the work environment, such as improving ventilation, encouraging social distancing, allowing remote work, using personal protective equipment (PPE), installing barriers, performing disinfection and cleaning
- protecting workers who are at high risk
- establishing measures for communicating with employees in languages they understand
- educating and training workers about COVID-19 policies and processes
- instructing employees who are sick to remain at home and quarantine, and ensuring that the absence policy is not punitive
- isolating any employees who show symptoms in the workplace
- providing guidance for testing and screening
- recording and reporting COVID-cases
- protecting from retaliation any employees who voice concerns related to COVID-19
- making COVID-19 vaccinations available to eligible employees at no cost
Recommendations for the Construction Industry
OSHA also issued guidance pertinent to various industries. For the construction workforce, OSHA recommends the following:
- instructing workers who are sick to stay home
- wearing masks over noses and mouths, and replacing these face coverings when they get wet or become contaminated
- remembering to cover sneezes and coughs
- continuing standard usage of PPE related to construction
- providing training for using and wearing protective equipment and clothing
- avoiding physical contact and maintaining social distancing
- frequent handwashing or using hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available
- ensuring that worksite toilets are cleaned regularly, with soap and hand sanitizer dispensers frequently refilled
- using cleaning chemicals approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (List N) or labeled for combatting the coronavirus
- cleaning tools before and after use
- reducing worksite dust levels via rigorous housekeeping
- making sure that in-person meetings are short, involve a small number of workers, and incorporate social distancing
- screening all visitors on worksites, to the extent possible
- staggering work schedules to reduce the number of workers on sites each day, as feasible
- identifying choke points where workers have to stand close together (such as in elevators or hallways) and devise strategies for social distancing
- when possible, instructing delivery personnel to stay in their vehicles
- encouraging everyone to report concerns about worksite health and safety
Note that the OSHA guidelines apply to all states but are not legal mandates. Instead, they are intended as guidelines to assist employers in their obligations of providing safe workplaces and avoiding hazardous conditions that result in physical harm.
OSHA intends to update these guidelines as needed in accordance with science and best practices. The executive order also requires the DOL to “consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary, and if such standards are determined to be necessary, issue them by March 15, 2021.” Industries across the nation will wait to see if such an emergency mandate is issued.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation.