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COVID-19 and the Altered Workplace Landscape

Posted by Clarion Safety Systems on 4th Feb 2021

COVID-19-Altered-Workplaces

It’s hard to quantify just how drastically the world has changed because of COVID-19. At its onset, we had little notion of the adjustments that would be required in order to implement coronavirus control and prevention measures. This is especially true as it relates to COVID-19 and the workplace – there are many new measures that OSHA has implemented in order to respond to the pandemic and provide employers with guidelines for staff safety.

Current COVID-19 Considerations in the Workplace
Now nearly a year into the pandemic, most workplaces have acclimated to the new reality of COVID-19 and implemented safety measures to prevent and slow its spread. Recently, in response to an executive order signed by President Biden shortly after his inauguration to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA has issued updated guidance to prevent exposure and the spread of the virus in the workplace. This “first step” is part of a larger plan titled “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace” that aims to ensure that the health and safety of American workers becomes a national priority.

In line with previous recommendations by OSHA, this updated guidance is not mandatory and does not carry the same legal weight as an OSHA standard. However, OSHA is currently working on a potential emergency temporary standard that the new presidential administration is hoping to be considered and implemented by March 15.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the significant revised measures employers should familiarize themselves with:

  • Employers should provide workers with protective face coverings, unless their work task requires the use of a respirator. These can include cloth face coverings, surgical masks and other protective face coverings appropriate for the task at hand.
  • Provide workers with a COVID-19 vaccine at no cost to all eligible employees.
  • Employers should not distinguish between vaccinated workers and non-vaccinated workers for the purposes of implementing safety and prevention measures.
  • The effects of quarantine and isolation should be minimized by implementing non-punitive policies. Employers with less than 500 employees are encouraged by OSHA to offer paid sick leave as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which runs through March 31, 2021.
  • Assign a designated coordinator to be responsible for COVID-19-related issues in the workplace.
  • Offer employees guidance on COVID-19 screening and testing.

It’s important for employers to be aware of these new guidelines so that they can take the appropriate action to ensure that they’re addressing the pandemic and providing a safe and healthy workplace for their team. It’s likely that OSHA will continue to rollout revised guidance as the Biden administration continues to work to combat COVID-19. And, while you can take steps to prevent its spread in the workplace, your staff risk exposure elsewhere that they may then bring back to work. By utilizing OSHA’s risk level assessments, you can identify general exposure risk and act accordingly.

Shifting Work Expectations and Environments
Though COVID-19 has impacted countless lives and businesses, it’s also clear that it has sparked a renewed commitment to health and safety in the workplace. With an increased vigilance towards sanitation and enforcement of safety measures, employers are taking the opportunity raised by the pandemic to improve compliance. And as the pandemic progresses, many manufacturers are altering their product lines and equipment in line with shifting supply chains and social distancing regulations.

Some employers are working to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by migrating positions to a virtual setting rather than in-person. According to the Occupational Information Network, approximately 31 percent of the workforce shifted from in-person to telecommuting from March to April of last year. Of course, not all jobs can be performed virtually, especially those in industrial sectors.

For those positions that have been relocated to the virtual space, there are new safety risks that have emerged in place of COVID-19. One of the greatest risks facing at-home workers is injury from poor ergonomics. Working from a bed or failing to maintain good posture can easily damage one’s back and cause gradual deterioration of muscle strength.

OSHA’s Response to the Coronavirus
OSHA has worked to ensure employee well-being during the pandemic by enforcing its rules related to employer obligations for health, safety and hazard prevention measures in the workplace. According to the United States Department of Labor, fines have already been issued in excess of $1,222,000. There are several common OSHA COVID-19 violations that contribute to this number.

According to a report published in November of last year, the most common violation is noncompliance with the General Duty Clause. This clause appears in Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and establishes each employer’s obligation to “furnish to each of his employees […] a place of employment which [is] free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Employers who were willfully negligent in implementing virus prevention precautions were thus cited and fined under this clause.

Penalties for this and other COVID-19-related violations are rated based on the severity of the offense. Fines are assessed as follows:

  • $13,494 per violation for serious, other-than-serious, and posting requirement infractions
  • $13,494 per day beyond the abatement date for failure to abate
  • $134,937 per violation for willful or repeated violations

These penalties are intended to act as deterrents so companies avoid flouting health and safety guidelines designed to prevent the spread of the novel virus.

Compliance in the Age of COVID
While compliance to safety standards and regulations does help avoid fines, it’s about much more than that – it’s about keeping your staff safe and managing the spread of the coronavirus. With these priorities in mind, violations can be prevented and your employees can be protected. Follow these steps to minimize the risk of receiving a citation from OSHA:

  • Provide all necessary PPE to staff – and visual PPE reminders
  • Monitor symptoms and potential exposure
  • Read all new OSHA regulations
  • Allow staff to work from home if possible

Implementing these precautions can help you minimize the risk of seeing the virus spread throughout your workplace. As the pandemic continues, enlisting expert advice can provide an additional layer of protection. When it comes to visual safety and compliance needs, visit our resources for environmental health and safety professionals where we cover key topics on regulation updates, proper sign content and more.

This blog was originally posted on 1/15/21 and has been updated with new information throughout.

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