As an employer, I am concerned with creating a safe workplace for my employees, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are OSHA’s COVID-19 requirements?
Since the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 Flu, regulatory agencies have been considering the creation of an infectious disease standard for employers. Until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishes such a standard, the agency released some much-anticipated guidance surrounding COVID-19 in January 2021.
So no, while OSHA hasn’t released any COVID-19 requirements specifically aimed at communicable diseases, that does not mean there aren’t OSHA regulations employers need to consider as it relates to communicable diseases.
Basic Safety Regulations
In the absence of a specific communicable disease standard, the most important OSHA guideline employers need to remember is the “General Duty Clause.” This over-arching clause is a catch-all for OSHA which states that employers have a “duty to provide employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” This arguably would include preventing the spread of infectious disease among employees. The General Duty Clause allows OSHA to enforce reasonable safety measures in the event that they do not have a specific standard to enforce.
OSHA requirements do not stop there. Employers could be opening themselves up to citations directly related to their handling of common COVID-19 related situations should they fail to ensure a safe workplace. Violations can infringe upon several categories, such as the General Duty Clause, Personal Protective Equipment, Bloodborne Pathogen, and Respirator Protection violations, just to name a few. For example, some employers have handed out N95 masks – an innocent enough action, but OSHA considers these masks as “respirators” which require medical evaluation and fit testing. Should employees be found using such tools without the proper training, it could mean a citation. Now more than ever, employers should keep these standards in mind when reviewing their safety protocol in the workplace.
Communicable Disease Policy
OSHA requirements aside, it may be best practice that employers consider the implementation of a Communicable Disease policy as part of their Health and Safety program. A Communicable Disease policy should be written to assure employees that any employment decision involving someone with a real or perceived communicable disease will be made with informed medical judgment and confidentiality. Additionally, employers must agree to involve medical professionals such as an occupational health provider who clearly understands the risk of transmission and impact on others in the workplace. Such a policy will assure that employers are proactive in protecting employee safety and health.
Thank you to Patti Dunham, MBA, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP for contributing to this edition of our HR Question of the Week!
During these uncertain times, be sure to check out our COVID-19 Employer Resources for webinars, resource guides, our Return to Work Guide, and more to help you navigate your business through the challenges you are facing.