What You Need to Know About OSHA’s New COVID-19 Guidelines

COVID-19 is an issue that continues to impact our daily lives. While the situation concerning the pandemic has improved over the past year, there are still some concerns about COVID-19 that have public health officials concerned. 

One of the most recent concerns with COVID-19 has to do with the threat of new mutations for the virus to occur and bring it back with a vengeance. Unfortunately, these mutations could be even more powerful than the strain of COVID-19 we had to deal with during the previous year. The recent concern is the Delta strain. It is a highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus strain that was identified in India in December. Unfortunately, it has managed to rapidly spread through not only India but Great Britain before reaching the US.  What Does the Workplace Look Like in the Post-COVID Era? Watch our on-demand  webinar to find out from HR experts >>

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has described the Delta variant as more transmission than the common cold, along with the viruses that can cause smallpox, MERS, SARS, and Ebola. Experts are even claiming that it’s as contagious as chickenpox from a recent document that was leaked and reported on by The New York Times

One of the highest spread cases and severe outcomes is occurring in places with low vaccination rates. According to the CDC, the majority of hospitalization and deaths have all transpired from those who remain unvaccinated. However, the CDC did publish data in July that revealed that those who have been vaccinated can also transmit Delta, which offices did not believe to be the case with other varieties. That has caused the guidelines concerning COVID-19 to be revised as of recently. 

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is one of the many agencies to have recently updated their COVID-19 guidance for non-healthcare employers. The reason for this recent revision to the guidelines is to better align with the CDC’s July 27, 2021 recommendations due to the rising cases of the Delta variant. 

As an employer, you must be aware of these recent changes and adapt to them to ensure you remain compliant with the law. It also ensures the safety of your employees and yourself in the long run. Let’s go over everything you need to know about OSHA’s new COVID-19 guidelines. 

The new guidelines

The purpose behind the guidelines is to further summarize the CDC’s substantial or high transmission guidelines and help employers in recognizing and abating COVID-19 hazards in the workplace. According to the guidelines, OSHA “ strongly encourages” employers to provide paid time off to workers for the length it takes to get vaccinated and recover from side effects and to consider cooperating with local public health officials to offer vaccinations in the workplace. 

OSHA also recommends that employers “ consider adopting policies that require workers to get vaccinated or to undergo regular COVID-19 testing – in addition to mask-wearing and physical distancing – if they remain unvaccinated.

The new guidelines are mostly a reiteration of the OSHA guidelines from January, which was updated in June 2021, when OHSA issued its Healthcare Emergency Temporary Standard. But, the guidance was further updated to include the CDC’s most recent masking recommendations and has added a checklist with recommendations on how to establish practices and procedures to protect unvaccinated and high-risk employees.  

The recently updated guidance is not a formally established standard or regulation, and it causes no new legal obligation for employers. That said, employers need to provide a safe work environment for their employees under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s General Duty Clause, and the guidelines serve as an expectation that OSHA has regarding the execution of consistent practices or equality protective to avoid citations. 

What employers need to be aware of

The OSHA’s June 10, 2021, guidelines mostly concentrated on unvaccinated and at-risk workers. It states that vaccinations were some of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the virus, and fully vaccinated people did not need to concern themselves with wearing face coverings or practicing physical distancing. 

The recent update has changed all of that since the CDC has published new information concerning the rise of cases due to the Delta Variant. That follows the CDC’s COVID-19 integrated County View Data Tracker to designated areas that have a substantial or high transmission rate. The CDC's recent update recommends that fully vaccinated workers start wearing masks in areas of substantial or high community transmission if they work in an environment that is at high risk. 

It also recommends that employees in other non-substantial or high-risk areas wear masks if they have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 for at least 14 days. Or until people have received a negative COVID testing sometime between three to five days after exposure. 

OSHA’s recent update indicates that to protect workers from these substantial or high transmission rates, employers need to create a multi-layered intervention process to lessen the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Here is the step you should consider implementing in your workplace: 

  • Encourage and assist employees to receive the vaccination by offering them paid time off, working with local health agencies to provide vaccinations in the workplace, and establishing policies that require employees to become vaccinated. 
  • Ordering employees to remain at home if they have recently come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19.
  • Introducing physical distancing in the workplace. Employers need to assess if there are any measures they can take to introduce flexible worksites, workhorse, or meetings and traveling options to limit the spread to unvaccinated or at-risk workers. Employers also need to evaluate if they can implement transparent shields or solid barriers to divide individuals. That way, workers will not have to deal with face-to-face pathways. 
  • Implementing face coverings, such as surgical masks and any other protective face coverings. 
  • Introducing a program that educates and trains employees on COVID-19 policies and procedures including but not limited to paid time off, faces coverings, home to screen for health, and physical distancing in the worksite. 
  • Establishing a face-covering policy for customers, guests, and visitors in areas where there is a case for substantial or high transmission. 
  • Setting up a process to maintain the ventilation system to lessen the concentration of viral particles in indoor air and the risk of virus transmission to unvaccinated and at-risk workers. 
  • Conducting routine cleaning and disinfection throughout the worksite. 
  • Recording and reporting and deaths due to COVID-19.
  • Setting up an anti-retaliation process that defends employees from COVID-19 related leave and safety measures. 
  • Reviewing any other OSHA standards that may apply. 

Higher-risk workplace

OSHA has also managed to identify plenty of varying types of a worksite that can be considered higher-risk because of workplace environment factors. That includes meat processing, manufacturing, high-volume retail and grocery stores, and agricultural-processing settings. For these settings, people are far more likely to be at risk because of the proximity, extended duration of contact, contact with a limited amount of ventilation, or other unique reasons that may increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19. 

For these higher-risk situations, OSHA has instructed employers to assess and determine if the following actions can be executed. 

  • Stagger break times in these highly populated work environments, or offer a temporary break room and restrooms to prevent groups of unvaccinated or at-risk workers from convening in a single location during breaks. These workers should keep a six feet distance between themselves and others all time, even while on breaks. 
  • Stagger worker’s arrival and departure time to prevent any potential congregations of unvaccinated or at-risk workers in parking areas, locker rooms, or anywhere else. 
  • Set up visual cues, such as floor markings or signs, as a way to remind everyone to keep a physical distance from each other at all times.
  • Implementing the idea of having unvaccinated or at-risk workers and fully vaccinated workers in locations of substantial or high transmission to wear masks when possible. Let them know to also prompt customers and other visitors to keep their masks on at all times. 
  • Come up with strategies that can improve the ventilation that protects workers as outlined by the CDC’s Ventilation in Buildings. The OSHA Alert: COVID-19 Guidance on Ventilation in the workplace, and ASHRAE Guidance for Building Operations and Industrial Settings During the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

Additionally, OSHA’s guidance indicates that retailers need to either suggest or require unvaccinated customers, guests, or visitors to wear a face mask at all times. The need for them to wear masks should be interpreted as a direction to employers to post signs that tell these individuals to wear them at all times. For example, a sign that says, “For the safety of our employees and customers, we require everyone to wear a mask at all times.” 

Even if your county is not one of the many areas considered to be a high-risk level, you should still take the time to check if you are surrounded by other high-risk counties. There is a potential chance that individuals from those locations could visit your location. So, establishing a rule to wear a mask at all times may be prudent to ensure the safety of everyone in your business. 

The guidance also addresses work environments that have employees traveling in employer-provided transportation and indicates that employers should consider limiting the occupancy. They should also require ventilation during the rides, such as opening the windows or using a non-recirculating ventilation system. 

Lastly, OSHA has heavily stressed additional guidelines for meat processing, manufacturing, and assembly line settings. They have made it a requirement for employees to ensure there is a decent amount of ventilation in the facility, maximizing the physical distance among employees, and installed barriers to prevent face-to-face pathways. 

In summation

Unless your work environment has been 100% guaranteed vaccinated, the OSHA’s expectation for substantial or high-risk worksites (which is identified by the OSHA as a “workplace with heightened risk due to workplace environmentals factors”) is to make masks a requirement for everyone who is unvaccinated or at-risk, regardless of the transmission rates. These masks are also necessary for unvaccinated employees when the workplace is in an area of substantial or high community transmission. 

When it comes to the requirements of the customers, OSHA’s guidelines state that employers need to consider requiring customers to do the same. Still, the agency could decide to send out inspectors who, in response to a complaint by an employee or customer about the lack of masking, views the lack of masking as a violation of the General Duty Clause and a failure by the employer to provide a safe work environment for employees. 

Now, you may be wondering if this is likely to happen in areas where masking appears to be an option for everyone?

There’s a good chance that it may not be employers in these areas, but you need to determine whether or not your business can be considered a workplace with heightened risk because of workplace environment factors, similar to the ones identified by the OSHA. Plus, you need to be aware of the potential risk when assessing whether or not you should go through with encouraging the masking of customers and whether or not you will be implementing a rule for fully vaccinated employees to wear masks. 

That can be an issue for a lot of employers since most workers will be reluctant to wear a mask once again. The freedom provided to them by not wearing a mask is difficult to give up, so you’ll have some stubborn employees that need to be dealt with if mask-wearing rules are implemented. It can be particularly challenging if you are trying to impose it on people who have been fully vaccinated. Furthermore, it could cause issues among employees who have been vaccinated and those who remain unvaccinated. 

The recent changes regarding masking guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals seem to be a sign that with the Delta variant, there is a chance we’ll see further guidelines from the CDC. The reinstatement of masks mandates regardless if someone has managed to receive their vaccination or not. Whether it will be nationwide or state-wide is still to be determined. 

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