On January 29, 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provided stronger guidance for employers and employees on COVID-19 in the workplace. The guidance entitled “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace” was posted on OSHA’s website on January 29, 2021. The guidance provides information to workers about protecting themselves from COVID-19 in the workplace, elements of effective prevention programs, and other recommendations on how to limit the spread of COVID-19.
OSHA asserts that a workplace prevention program is the most effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at work and should include specific elements. In addition, the guidance provides extensive additional details on key measures for limiting the spread. Most employers will be familiar with the elements in the guidance, but here are some of the significant new measures addressed in the guidelines:
- Employers should provide all workers with face coverings (i.e., cloth face coverings, surgical masks), unless their work task requires a respirator. Many states did not require this, and OSHA did not previously recommend employers purchase masks.
- Provide a COVID-19 vaccine at no cost to eligible employees.
- Do not distinguish between vaccinated workers and those who are not vaccinated for purposes of implementing safety measures.
- Minimize the effect of quarantine and isolations by implementing non-punitive policies and provide paid sick leave. Employers with less than 500 employees are encouraged to provide FFCRA leave which is still available (though not mandatory) through March 31, 2021 under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
- Provide guidance on screening and testing.
- Assign a workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 issues.
Next Steps for Employers
OSHA notes that the guidance is not a legal standard or regulation and creates no new legal obligations but provides recommendations as well as descriptions of existing safety and health standards. As such, employers are encouraged to review the guidance and take measures that may be needed based on the recommendations. Employers should also be mindful of their obligation under the General Duty clause to provide a safe workplace, in addition to industry specific COVID-19 requirements under federal and state law.