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OSHA Provides Guidance and Resources in Wake of COVID-19 Pandemic

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by Michael C. Ford

OSHA has responded to the COVID-19 outbreak with a dedicated webpage that includes guidance for employers.  While emphasizing that the current risk for most types of workers remains low, the guidance covers preparing workplaces for COVID-19, preventing worker exposure, as well the OSHA standards that may apply.  While no standard specifically addresses COVID-19, OSHA’s “general duty clause” and “personal protective equipment standards” may apply to workplace exposure scenarios.

The general duty clause (29 USC 654(a)(1)) requires employers to furnish workers “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”  OSHA offers no further elaboration as to how an employer may run afoul of the general duty clause, the application of which can require a complex assessment, and the enforcement of which has generated a great deal of litigation.  This concern should be greatly mitigated however, to the extent employers have encouraged, required or been forced to implement a worker telecommuting program as a precautionary measure.

OSHA’s PPE standard requires workers to use gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection where necessary to protect worker safety.  Where respirators are necessary, employers must implement a comprehensive respiratory protection program to assure workers are trained in the use of the appropriate respirator for the hazard, and use the respirator appropriately to assure its protective benefits.  On March 14, 2020, OSHA issued temporary enforcement guidance for healthcare workers addressing the potential shortage of N95 filtering facepieces.  The guidance relaxes the annual fit testing requirements – which often result in the destruction of the test facepiece – in order to conserve the supply of N95 facepieces.  Health care employers must still meet certain obligations, including assuring workers use appropriate NIOSH-certified respirators, and perform initial fit tests.  (The guidance is available here).

OSHA also provides a useful “additional resources” page of interest to the general public as well as health care workers who are on the frontlines fighting the COVID-19 pandemic (available here).