1. Has OSHA developed standards specifically with respect to COVID-19, or coronavirus?
At this time, OSHA has not created specific OSHA standards for COVID-19. However, OSHA is carefully monitoring the situation. It has created a centralized website for employers to familiarize themselves with the disease, including its transmission and what can be done to protect employees. On this website, OSHA has identified existing standards that may apply to or provide a framework for dealing with COVID-19, including its Personal Protective Equipment standard (29 C.F.R. 1910, Subpart 1), General Duty Clause (29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1)), and Bloodborne Pathogens standard (29 C.F.R. 1910.1030).
2. Has OSHA identified industries that are most likely to be affected by COVID-19?
Yes, while OSHA has assured employers that “most American workers are not at significant risk of infection,” it has identified industries that may be at an elevated risk of infection, including healthcare, deathcare or mortuary services, laboratories, airline operations, border protection, solid waste and wastewater management, and those involving travel to areas where the virus is spreading, including China. Specific guidance for control and prevention for each of these potentially high-risk industries is available on the OSHA website.
3. What are my obligations under the OSH Act to protect my employees from COVID-19?
OSHA has endorsed the interim guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control as procedures for dealing with the threat from COVID-19. The CDC guidance recommends that employers actively encourage sick employees to stay home, emphasize to all employees the importance of staying home when sick and practicing good hand hygiene, perform routine environmental cleaning, advise employees of safe practices for traveling, and ask that employees notify the employer about infected family members or other sources of possible exposure. For employers who are not in high-risk industries, OSHA recommends promoting good hand hygiene practices, such as frequent handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
For employers who are in high-risk industries, OSHA recommends employers consider controls such as identifying and isolating suspected cases, environmental decontamination, and worker training, especially about the use of Personal Protective Equipment and analogous situations involving Bloodborne Pathogens. The CDC has also developed resources specifically for the airline and shipping industries as part of its guidance.
OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires all employers to provide a safe work environment against known threats, which may now include COVID-19, so OSHA recommends that all employers stay vigilant to the evolving outbreak situation and adopt additional precautions as necessary. Violations of the General Duty Clause could result in fines of up to $70,000 for willful violations and up to $7,000 for each mistake.
4. An employee is suffering from COVID-19. Do I have to include this employee in my Form 300 or complete a Form 301?
Yes, if it appears the employee contracted the disease while at work. COVID-19 does not fall into OSHA’s usual exemption for cold and flu.
5. Is there any other guidance on further steps that may be taken to protect my employees?
Yes, California’s state OSHA has issued its own guidance with recommendations aimed at preventing the infection and spread of COVID-19. California’s OSHA standards require employers to have specific written plans and procedures for Aerosol Transmissible Diseases, or diseases and pathogens that spread through the air. These plans and procedures must include procedures to identify and isolate suspected cases, procedures to communicate with employees regarding suspected or confirmed infections, procedures and training regarding Personal Protective Equipment, decontamination, and procedures to identify potential employee exposures.
6. Can I terminate an employee who makes a report of an unsafe working environment and then refuses to work based upon the belief that the workplace is unsafe?
It depends. An employee’s duty to report to work on time and ready to perform his or her job duties is not excused based on a generalized fear of safety solely because an COVID-19 patient is working for or being treated by the employer. If the employee refuses to report to work, then the standard attendance policies that typically include progressive discipline should be followed. The same would remain true even if the employee has reported a perceived OSHA claim related to COVID-19 exposure through internal or external complaint procedure. However, if the employee has a specific fear based upon articulable facts, employers should exercise caution in termination.