OSHA’s new guidance is advisory in nature and creates no new legal obligations. However, one of President Biden’s first acts after being sworn in was to sign an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety that directs OSHA to increase enforcement of existing agency standards and investigate whether a new standard for COVID-19 mitigation is needed. Given that, employers may want to consider the new guidelines a strong recommendation.
In a nutshell, OSHA recommends that employers and employees implement a COVID-19 prevention program that includes the following elements:
Masks and social distancing
A hazard assessment
Measures to limit the spread of the virus
Ways to identify (and send home) sick employees and policies for employee absences that don’t punish workers for staying home when sick
Communication of coronavirus policies and procedures in both English and the primary language of non-English speaking workers
Protections from retaliation for workers who raise coronavirus-related concerns
If you’re interested, you can learn more about the program here.
As COVID-19 infection rates continue to climb, it’s imperative that organizations respond quickly when an employee is diagnosed. Here are the steps employers should take:
Employees should be notified of potential exposure in the workplace, but they should not be told who is sick. Employees won’t like that they can’t gauge their own risk, but the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires this type of information remain confidential. Don’t worry if employees figure it out on their own, but make sure you’re not the one to reveal the information (and don’t drop sneaky hints to help them along).
Assess the Risk of Exposure and Quarantine If Advisable
If there was close contact for a prolonged period (about six feet or less for 15 minutes or more over the course of 24 hours), exposed employees should quarantine. If you aren’t confident in your risk assessment, call your local or state health authority to help you determine which employees should quarantine.
Disinfect Areas Used by the Sick Employee
The CDC recommends the following practices (among others):
Close off areas used by the person who is sick for 24 hours, if possible.
Open outside doors and windows to increase air circulation in the area.
Clean and disinfect areas and items used by the person who is sick (their workstation, bathrooms, common areas, tablets, touch screens, keyboard, registers). Wait as long as possible before cleaning and disinfecting.
If it has been seven days or more since the person who is sick was in the workplace, additional cleaning and disinfection is not necessary.
For more detailed instructions on cleaning and disinfecting the workplace after someone is diagnosed, and lots of great general guidance, see the CDC’s Guidance for Business and Employers. Calling your local or state health authority is recommended as well.
Determine When an Employee Can Return to Work
Sick employees should work with their healthcare provider to determine when to return to the workplace. Generally, an employee will be okay to return when at least 24 hours have passed since resolution of fever without the use of medication, and other symptoms have improved, and at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared or since the positive test result, if the employee is asymptomatic.