How OSHA Says Companies Should Deal With COVID-19 in the Workplace

As U.S. companies face down the threat of COVID-19, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released input for how to prepare for and minimize impacts. Guidance was developed with the help of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and includes everything from commonsense measures to response plans.

With previously published guidelines calling for eliminating handshakes and replacing in-person meetings with video conferences, the virus has all but eliminated trade shows and industry meetings. Meanwhile, back in the workplace, “Lack of continuity planning can result in a cascade of failures,” the administration warns. “This guidance outlines practical ways that employers and workers can address potential health risks from the coronavirus in their workplaces,” says Loren Sweatt, principal deputy assistant secretary for occupational safety and health.

With or without those measures, expected impacts to operations boil down to absenteeism, interrupted supply chains and changes in consumer patterns. While the demand for anything related to prevention is likely to skyrocket (like hand sanitizer and face masks, for instance), consumer interest in other goods could decline steeply, the administration warns.

Before getting to any specifics in its document, titled “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” OSHA officials are quick to declare that the information provided is for guidance and does not include any new standards, regulations, or legal obligations.

For companies that have previously planned for influenza pandemics, navigating COVID-19 may involve updates to address “specific exposure risks, sources of exposure, routes of transmission,” and other characteristics unique to the new strain of coronavirus, the report says. If they haven’t already, employers should rush to develop infectious disease preparedness and response plans, officials point out. Such plans can include things like social distancing, staggered work shifts and downsizing, as well as working remotely. Where necessary, companies should consider conducting essential operations only under reduced workforces, the report suggests, while considering the option of cross-training in order to deliver “surge services.”

With symptoms appearing in two to 14 days, it goes without saying that employees can carry and spread the virus before exhibiting symptoms, but people are believed to be especially contagious when they’re most symptomatic. Spread is believed to occur mainly from person to person, including people who are within close contact (within 6 feet), and via respiratory droplets produced by coughs and sneezing, which are then inhaled, or otherwise make their way to the mouths or noses of those within range. It’s also believed that transmission can occur by touching objects, but, “this is not thought to be the primary way the virus spreads,” OSHA’s guidelines say.

With symptoms ranging from mild to severe, including fever, cough and shortness of breath, OSHA suggests that workers exhibiting signs of illness be encouraged to stay home. Meanwhile, back at work the administration suggests basic infection prevention measures, like frequent handwashing, respiratory etiquette (covering coughs and sneezes) and physical distancing—the key measure being 6 feet.

In addition to encouraging employees to be open about their conditions and to remain home when symptoms develop outside of the workplace, for the inevitable cases in which onset occurs during work hours, companies are encouraged to develop policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation. Potentially infected workers should be moved to pre-established, isolated areas, “with closeable doors,” OSHA’s guidance suggests. Additionally, two separate areas should be established—one for those who are deemed sick and another for those who suspect onset.

In cases where employees call in sick, or leave, you might be tempted to require a note from healthcare providers to validate illnesses, but OSHA warns against this, suggesting that providers might be too busy to provide appointments and documentation in a timely fashion.

In the absence of a vaccine, officials warn that the outbreak could become an “extended event.” Monday, the Administration suggested that the epidemic here in the U.S. could extend into summer, possibly triggering a recession.

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