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Returning to Work: OSHA Guidance for Employers

June 30, 2020

by Tamara Hastings, PHR

OSHA Guidance for employers

Does your organization have a re-opening plan in place? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidance for reopening businesses that recommends each establishment conduct a hazard assessment for all jobs. It also clarifies OSHA’s positions on temperature checks, coronavirus testing and face masks. This is consistent with their previous guidance but addresses return-to-work guidelines more specifically.

The information provided by OSHA is more guidance than requirements, and employers need to assess their own situations to meet the General Duty Clause to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards. These resources may be especially useful if you as an employer are looking for guidance on what to implement and how to meet these guidelines to keep employees safe.

Recommendations from OSHA’s Return-to-Work booklet include:

  • Employers should conduct a thorough hazard assessment that examines the potential COVID-19 exposures for each job category and outlines protective measures.
  • Employers may perform daily temperature checks and health assessments of employees, so long as the checks are administered transparently and fairly and anyone performing the checks is protected from possible infection. However, asking employees to self-check at home may be more efficient, especially when paired with sick-leave policies that encourage workers to stay home if they feel ill. Temperature screening “may have limited utility on its own,” OSHA wrote.
  • Employers don’t have to keep a record of temperature checks or other health assessments for returning employees (unless state or local guidelines require it). If they do, those records could qualify as medical records under OSHA’s Access to Employee Exposure and Medical Records standard and would then have to be stored confidentially for the length of the worker’s employment plus 30 years.
  • Cloth face masks are recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by those who are infected, including those who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, and cloth masks may count as administrative controls for keeping the workplace safe. However, OSHA reiterated that cloth face masks are not personal protective equipment (PPE) and so are not subject to requirements for training and fit testing. Cloth face masks cannot be used in place of more protective N95 masks, which are required as PPE in certain health care, construction and other settings.
  • If PPE is required but not available and there are no other ways to safely do the job, “the work tasks must be discontinued,” OSHA wrote.

As a framework for employers, OSHA listed nine areas that reopening plans should address:

  • Hazard assessment, or looking for when, where and how workers are likely to be exposed to the coronavirus on the job.
  • Hygiene, including hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, and cleaning and disinfection.
  • Social distancing, or looking for ways to maintain distance between people at work, using 6 feet as a rule of thumb.
  • Identification and isolation of sick employees.
  • Policies for returning to work after illness or exposure.
  • Controls, including engineering and administrative controls (more details on these in my previous OSHA email), safe work practices, and personal protective equipment selected as a result of an employer’s hazard assessment.
  • Workplace flexibilities around telework and sick leave.
  • Training on the signs, symptoms and risk factors associated with COVID-19 and how to prevent its spread.
  • Anti-retaliation policies that ensure that no adverse action is taken against an employee who raises workplace safety and health concerns.
  • Regardless of the types of infection prevention and control measures employers adopt, OSHA said, employers should consider ways to communicate those measures to workers, including through training and providing a point of contact for any worker questions or concerns. In addition, employers should continue to emphasize social distancing; workplace flexibilities such as telework; and basic hygiene, including handwashing and disinfection of surfaces.

The CDC also has some useful guidelines on returning to work and practices to implement. Some are similar to the OSHA guidelines, but two that stand out from the OSHA guidelines include:

  • Improving ventilation in the building by opening windows when possible or increasing the percentage of outdoor air used in HVAC systems. Employers should also consider running the ventilation system even when the building is unoccupied and adding portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems to enhance air cleaning.
  • A ban on hugs, handshakes and fist bumps (never a dull day in HR…) and the elimination of coffee pots and other shared items. The CDC said employers should offer commuters parking subsidies or other incentives to encourage use of personal vehicles instead of public transit.

Not only will implementing safe practices be necessary, but how your organization communicates these practices to your employees, including training and providing a point of contact for questions, will be incredibly important. In addition, employers should continue to emphasize social distancing; workplace flexibilities such as telework; and basic hygiene, including handwashing and disinfection of surfaces.

As an employer, please know that this just touches the surface on options for administrative and engineering controls that your organization can implement and not all of these items will be relevant for each organization. We at AEM Workforce Solutions can help determine the correct options for you, the best ways for you to communicate this information to your employees and how to document your efforts to help ensure your organization’s compliance during this time. Reach out to us today to determine a strategy for your organization’s re-opening as well as a positive-test plan in the event of a positive infection within your workplace. Together, we’ll ensure your organization moves forward safely.

For actionable information, you can find OSHA’s Return-to-Work booklet here.

Tamara Hastings, PHR, has over nine years of experience working closely with business leaders, managers, and employees in a wide variety of HR functions. She works with the AEM Workforce Solutions team to help clients understand human resources compliance and develop effective strategies for their organization. 

You can reach Tamara at 952.449.6242 or click here to contact her via email. 

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