OSHA Releases New Guidelines in Wake of the Highly Contagious Delta Variant

Posted by Clarion Safety Systems on 19th Aug 2021

Due to the rapid rise in COVID-19 Delta variant cases, on August 13, 2021, OSHA issued updated guidance on aligning with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) new recommendations. This new guidance is intended to encompass the CDC’s substantial or high transmission guidance and to assist employers in recognizing and adopting new policies for COVID-19 hazards in the workplace.

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.

Workplaces considered by OSHA as high-risk settings for mixed vaccination workers are as follows:

  • Manufacturing
  • Meat, seafood, and poultry processing
  • High-volume retail and grocery
  • Agricultural processing

Current COVID-19 Considerations in the Workplace
Now, over 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. Back in January, in response to an executive order signed by President Biden shortly after his inauguration to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA had issued a National Emphasis Program 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 does have certain mandatory procedures.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the significant revised measures employers should familiarize themselves with, especially with this highly transmissible Delta variant:

  • 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. Masks should still be required for those fully vaccinated.
  • Employers should provide workers with a COVID-19 vaccine at no cost to all eligible employees. If this cannot be provided through the workplace, employees should be encouraged to get vaccinated with paid time off incentives, and should start considering mandatory vaccination policies (excluding those with legitimate health concerns).
  • 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 in the workplace. Employers with less than 500 employees are encouraged by OSHA to offer paid sick leave as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which runs through September 30, 2021.
  • Assign a designated coordinator to be responsible for COVID-19-related issues in the workplace, as well as implementing physical distancing in all communal work areas.
  • Employees should be offered guidance on COVID-19 screening and testing, implementing a regular COVID-19 testing policy for those who do not wish to receive the vaccine.
  • As vaccinated employees can still spread the virus, employers should require negative tests 3-5 days after any exposure to positive COVID-19 cases.

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. Employers do need to proceed with caution in deciding whether or not to mandate a vaccine policy, and should look over the legal implications of either decision.

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. This is becoming increasingly important as since late January, OSHA has more than tripled its use of the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to cite employers for COVID-19 hazards not covered by an existing standard.

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. It is also projected that from here on out, over a quarter of the workforce will continue remotely for the permanent future. 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, last updated on January 14, 2021, COVID-19 fines have already been issued in excess of $4,034,000. 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 have gradually increased throughout the pandemic, and are now assessed as follows:

  • $13,653 per violation for serious, other-than-serious, and posting requirement infractions
  • $13,653 per day beyond the abatement date for failure to abate
  • $136,532 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 and implement as many as possible
  • Allow staff to work from home if possible
  • Encourage employee vaccinations

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.