Let’s Be Safe as We Return to Work

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Attorney Harrison Oldham

As many states are planning to re-open parts of their workforce in the coming weeks, it’s helpful to take a look at some suggestions for how to safely do so. Thankfully, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) has published Guidance for Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 (“Guidance”), which outlines steps employers can take to help protect their offices and workforce. The Guidance focuses on the need for employers to implement engineering, administrative, work practice controls and personal protective equipment (“PPE”), as well as suggestions for doing so.

The Guidance is in addition to several other OSHA standards that may apply. While there is no specific OSHA standard covering infectious disease or COVID-19 in particular, some OSHA requirements may apply to preventing occupational exposure to the virus including OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens standard, Personal Protective Equipment, Hazard Communication, and Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. Also, the General Duty Clause of OSHA, which requires employers to provide a “place of employment . . . free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm,” may apply.

The Guidance identifies various steps that every employer can take to reduce the risk of worker exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, including the development of an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan (“Plan”), which should take into account the levels of risk associated with various worksites, and the types of job tasks that workers perform at those sites. As part of the Plan, employers should consider implementing workplace controls based on risk zones. OSHA has divided workplaces into four risk zones, according to the likelihood of employees’ occupational exposure during a pandemic. These risk zones are:

  • Lower Risk – Employees whose jobs do not require contact with people known to be or suspected of being public infected with COVID-19 or frequent and/or close contact with (i.e., within six feet of) the general public.
  • Medium Risk. Employees whose jobs require frequent and/or close contact with (i.e., within six feet of) people who may be infected with COVID-19 but who are not known or suspected COVID-19 patients. In areas where there is ongoing community transmission, this category includes employees who have contact with the general public, such as in schools, high-volume retail settings, and high-population-density work environments.
  • High Risk. Employees with high potential for exposure to known or suspected sources of COVID-19, such as healthcare delivery and support staff and medical transport workers.
  • Very High Risk. Employees with high potential for exposure to known or expected sources of COVID-19 during specific medical, postmortem, or laboratory procedures, such as healthcare, laboratory, or morgue workers.

Workplace controls vary widely for the different work zones. For employees at Lower Risk, OSHA recommends no additional Engineering Controls or Personal Protective Equipment except to monitor public health communications about COVID-19 recommendations and ensure that workers have access to that information. For Medium Risk employees recommendations include installing sneeze guards, offering face masks to ill employees and customers to contain respiratory secretions until they are able to leave the workplace (i.e., for medical evaluation/care or to return home) and wear some combination of gloves, a gown, a face mask, and/or a face shield or goggles. High Risk and Very High Risk recommendations include isolation rooms, enhanced medical monitoring and wearing respirators.

While most workers in the United States will fall into the lower exposure risk level, OSHA’s guidance indicates that all employers should develop and implement a Plan and corresponding infection prevention measures. However, employers with employees that have a medium, high, or very high risk level may have an obligation to implement additional precautionary measures (e.g., use of engineering controls or administrative controls to prevent exposure to COVID-19).

In addition, other elements of the Plan should include:

  • Identification of Sources of Exposure to Workers – the general public, customers and coworkers; and sick individuals or those at particularly high risk of infection.
  • Prepare to Implement Basic Infection Prevention Measures – discourage workers from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices or other work tools, maintain regular housekeeping practices, routine cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, equipment and other elements of the work environment.
  • Develop Policies and Procedures for Prompt Identification and Isolation of Sick People – considerations for employer protocols in connection with responding to an employee who is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, including isolation and protection of workers in close contact with the sick person.
  • Develop, Implement and Communicate Workplace Flexibilities and Protections – encouraging sick employees to stay home; ensuring sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance medical care.

As with most things, putting time and effort into this project up front will help ensure a safe, healthy, and productive return to work.

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About Harrison Oldham

Harrison grew up in Mansfield, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University for his bachelor’s degree, where he met his wonderful wife, Kelsey. After graduating magna cum laude from Texas A&M, he attended SMU Dedman School of Law, graduating with honors in 2012. Today, Harrison and his wife live in Dallas, Texas with their son, Teddy.

Since graduating from SMU Law, Harrison has worked exclusively in the field of business law. He has spent time in private practice and in-house, working with clients of every size; from single person startups to Fortune 250 companies. Today his practice focuses on serving the diverse needs of businesses and individuals throughout Texas. You can learn more about Harrison by visiting his website, at: http://lonestarbusinesslaw.com/.

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