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4 Ways Worker Safety Agencies Are Responding to Virus Crisis

March 16, 2020, 4:45 PM

As employers and workers adapt to the rapidly changing workplace requirements from the new coronavirus spread, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have issued new guidance for U.S. employers.

1. Reporting Infections

After announcing that employers must track coronavirus infections incurred in the workplace—unlike cold and flu cases—OSHA clarified requirements for reporting on Covid-19, as the disease caused by the virus is known. A business is required to report confirmed cases of Covid-19 that are work-related and meet recording criteria set in OSHA regulations, such as days away from work or requiring medical treatment beyond first aid.

OSHA requires hundreds of thousands of employers with 10 more workers to keep a log of every workplace injury or illness that requires medical treatment beyond first aid or keeps a worker away from work for at least one day.

The new guidance still leaves confusion, however, about how to prove whether a worker actually contracted the virus on the job, according to workplace safety attorneys.

2. Respirator Guidance

As shortages of N95 facepiece respirators affect health-care operators, OSHA issued a memorandum Saturday providing temporary enforcement guidance to company health and safety officers on enforcing the Respiratory Protection standard (29 C.F.R. 1910.134). The guidance recommends employers provide N99 and N100 respirators with filtering facepieces for health-care workers.

Temporary enforcement guidance also recommends that health-care employers change from a quantitative fit testing method to a qualitative testing method “to preserve integrity of N95 respirators,” according to the guidance.

Qualitative fit testing is a pass/fail test method that uses sense of taste or smell, or reaction to an irritant in order to detect leakage into the respirator facepiece, according to OSHA. Quantitative fit testing uses a machine to measure the actual amount of leakage into the facepiece and doesn’t rely on sense of taste, smell, or irritation to detect leakage

OSHA field offices also have discretion to not cite an employer for violations of the annual fit testing requirement.

3. NIOSH Recommendations

NIOSH interim guidance for employers include encouraging businesses to tell sick employees to work from home, conducting thorough environmental cleanings of the workplace, and monitoring sick workers’ travel plans.

The agency, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, also recommends that companies offer paid sick leave policies that are “flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.”

Intended for settings outside of health care, the new guidance also provides planning considerations if there are more widespread, community outbreaks of Covid-19.

4. Health-care Worker Safety

The House’s revised coronavirus relief legislation package (H.R. 6201) dropped provisions that would have created a temporary emergency standard for health-care workers’ safety. Advocates have called for temporary relief that would put an infectious disease standard into action for workers as they care for people diagnosed with Covid-19.

OSHA doesn’t enforce a specific regulation for protecting workers in any industry from diseases caused by airborne pathogens, such as tuberculosis or Covid-19. the agency instead uses the general duty clause provision of the OSH Act of 1970 to cite employers in health-care settings.

Ed Foulke, a partner at Fisher & Phillips LLP’s Atlanta office, said that while OSHA’s latest clarification on work-related virus exposure may be intended to cover all workers, the new guidance could be interpreted to focus primarily on health-care workers and first responders who have a higher likelihood of being exposed to the disease.

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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