COVID-19 and Workplace Safety

OSHA Requirements

Because of the newness of COVID-19 and the fact that it is not a disease caused or created by particular industry or business specific exposures, Federal and State OSHA have promulgated no regulations for the protection of employees at work. However, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has published a “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19” which may provide valuable information to employers, outlining steps to help protect the workplace. The Guidance is advisory in nature and informational in content. It is not a new standard or regulation and does not create new obligations for employers or alter existing responsibilities under present OSHA standards. Instead, employers continue to be bound by the General Duty Clause which requires employers to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

Using traditional OSHA-required industrial hygiene practices which focus on the need for implementation of engineering, administrative and work practice controls and personal protective equipment (PPE), the Guidance identifies four exposure risk levels to determine appropriate precautions in the particular setting: Very High (healthcare workers performing procedures on known or suspected COVID-19 patients, those collecting or handling medical specimens from known or suspected COVID-19 patients, or those performing autopsies on persons who had the disease); High (healthcare deliver and support personnel, medical transport workers); Medium (jobs requiring frequent and/or close contact with others who may be infected with SARS-CoV-2, and high-density work environments); and Lower (jobs not requiring contact or interaction with other possible carriers, and having minimal occupational contact with co-workers and the public).

OSHA then recommends particular engineering and administrative workplace controls, safe work practices and PPE for each risk zone. The recommendations for each risk exposure category vary from little or no workplace controls beyond normal PPE and improved communications at work, to isolation, management of air supply, biosafety precautions, and extensive PPE (gloves, gowns, face shield or goggles, and mask or respirator).