The ‘first step’: OSHA updates COVID-19 guidelines as Biden administration focuses on worker safety
Washington — OSHA has issued updated COVID-19 guidance for workplaces – the “first step” by the Biden administration and new OSHA leadership to address the pandemic.
“The guidance issued today is the first step in the process, but it’s certainly not the last step in that process,” Jim Frederick, OSHA’s acting administrator and the agency’s principal deputy assistant secretary, said Jan. 29 during a Department of Labor virtual news conference.
The updated guidance, titled Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace stems from an Executive Order signed by President Joe Biden on Jan. 21. In addition to issuing the updated guidance, the order directs OSHA to consider an emergency temporary standard related to COVID-19. If an ETS is considered necessary, the agency is instructed to issue one by March 15.
A little more than one week into his new job, Frederick said he wasn’t ready to commit to a clearer time frame or outline what a potential ETS would include.
“We do not have an outline of what an ETS might look like, should we consider to go there,” Frederick said. “That is something we’re deliberating about and we’ll be working on.”
In the updated guidance, OSHA replaces suggestive language with stronger language, such as employers “should implement” prevention programs to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus. Unlike a regulation, however, the guidelines provide no legal obligations for employers.
Steps employers should take to reduce transmission of COVID-19 among workers include adopting policies that encourage potentially infected workers to remain home without punishment for their absences. Workers also should have protection from retaliation for raising COVID-19-related concerns, and employers should communicate policies and procedures in every language spoken by their workforce.
Additionally, the guidance calls for hazard assessments and the identification of control measures that will limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The guidance includes information about physical distancing and face coverings, among other recommended measures, as well as the roles of employers and employees in COVID-19 responses. This includes considerations for workers who are at higher risk of severe illness, including older employees, “through supportive policies and practices.”
Other sections address the installation of barriers when physical distancing of 6 feet or more isn’t feasible, ventilation, personal protective equipment, good hygiene practices, and routine cleaning and disinfection.
“More than 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions of people are out of work as a result of this crisis,” M. Patricia Smith, senior counselor to the labor secretary, said in a press release. “Employers and workers can help our nation fight and overcome this deadly pandemic by committing themselves to making their workplaces as safe as possible. 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.”
Another step in the process is “streamlining” the COVID-19-related citation process, OSHA Senior Advisor Ann Rosenthal said during the news conference.
She said the previous administration had “so many levels of review for COVID-related citations that, generally, they were issued on the final day of the six-month statute of limitations.” The goals of the streamlined process, she added, are timely abatement of hazards and informing workers.