The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued COVID-19 guidance for industries that have an increased potential of employee exposure to the coronavirus. A new standard is also working its way through the approval process and may be published soon.
The agency has drafted regulations for an Emergency Temporary Standard, or ETS, (currently under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget) and a directive for a National Emphasis Program (NEP). The NEP will use targeted inspections, outreach and compliance assistance to identify and reduce exposure to the coronavirus in the workplace. OSHA expects to make 1,600 NEP inspections—at least 5 percent of each of its regions’ total assigned inspection goal.
One of the biggest challenges for companies under the forthcoming ETS is the requirement to implement or maintain standards to protect worker safety as the number of cases continue to drop and restrictions ease across most regions, said Richard Cerenzio.
He is senior technical director of corporate health, safety, environment and sustainability at ISN, an information and technology services company in Dallas.
“There will be increased scrutiny from worker protection and advocacy groups to ensure companies do the right thing,” he said. “Companies will have to figure out how to protect workers as new variants of the virus crop up and employees begin to take less precautions outside of working hours.”
They must continue to ensure that their employees obey safety procedures and protect themselves and others, he noted. “Much of this requires educating employees to make decisions that will keep individuals safe both inside and outside of the workplace.”
Organizations must create a direct line of digital communication from the head office to front-line workers in order to react quickly and effectively to change so they are in OSHA COVID-19 compliance, noted Mike Zorn. He is vice president of workplace strategy for WorkJam, a digital workplace company headquartered in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
“For example, under OSHA rules, most employers with more than 10 employees are required to keep a record of serious work-related injuries and illnesses. Recorded injuries and illnesses become part of a contractor’s safety record. To ensure compliance, continual communication, on-demand resources, and real-time mobile training are no longer nice-to-haves, but instead are fundamental to protecting margins and maintaining compliance.”
Digitally communicating information creates auditable records of workflows and messages, he pointed out.
As of May 2, there have been 66,161 total COVID-19-related complaints received in federal and state OSHA programs since Feb. 1, 2020, according to an OSHA spokesperson. Through April 22, the federal OSHA office has conducted 426 COVID-19-related inspections with initial penalties totaling $5,441,476.
COVID-19-related complaints filed with OSHA include employers not providing employees with personal protective equipment (PPE), no social distancing among workers, employees not wearing masks, no hot water available for employees to wash their hands and work areas not sanitized frequently.
OSHA fined Liberty Tax Service of Lynn, Mass., $136,000 for refusing to let workers or customers wear masks. It was the agency’s largest COVID-19-related penalty, as of April 19.
What to Expect in an OSHA Inspection
Any OSHA inspection consists of three parts, beginning with a conference with the employer, a walk around the site and a closing conference with the employer. At the opening conference, the OSHA inspector explains the reason for the inspection, its scope, procedures for a walk-through of the site, and the need for employee representation and worker interviews during the inspection.
The employer will be asked to select an employee representative to accompany the inspector. The OSHA inspector also will talk privately with individual workers; questions may include whether the employer provides PPE and if it provides training.
The closing conference is with the employer and designated representatives to discuss the findings, suggestions for corrective procedures and reasonable timelines for making any changes.
The compliance officer then sends a report to the area OSHA director, who determines whether to issue a citation to the employer. If a citation is issued, the employer has 15 days to take action, which can include contesting the citation.
Cerenzio offered the following ways employers can prepare for a COVID-19-related OSHA inspection:
- Make sure you are implementing policies and encouraging employees to continue safety precautions. “Regardless of exposure risks in the workplace, companies must encourage employees to continue to practice wearing masks, washing hands frequently and monitoring their symptoms,” Cerenzio said.
- Take extra steps to ensure workers’ health, including screening employees for symptoms before they enter the work premises.
- Have documentation that shows the organization’s review of its policies. Also have documentation of employee training on new or revised procedures—and proof that the training was understood. “Typically, a documented quiz or acknowledgement of understanding should be in place,” Cerenzio said.
- Walk the worksite and talk with random employees to make sure they are knowledgeable about changes that have been made.
“The biggest problem I foresee” for employers, Cerenzio said, is “employees who practice safe procedures while at work but fail to do so once they’re outside of work. The best thing for companies to do is to continue encouraging their employees to follow more stringent standards than their legislative restrictions require.”
OSHA also offers a free On-Site Consultation Program and confidential occupational safety and health services to small and medium-size businesses in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories, with priority given to high-hazard worksites.
The program helps employers learn about potential hazards at their workplace, improve programs already in place and qualify for a one-year exemption from routine OSHA inspections, according to the agency’s website.
Onsite consultation services are separate from enforcement and do not result in penalties or citations, according to OSHA. Employers are connected with consultants from state agencies and universities who work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice for compliance with OSHA standards and assist in establishing and improving safety and health programs.
“Hopefully, most companies are at least somewhere on the path to pandemic protection of their employees,” Cerenzio said. “However, it will take each company to provide resources to not only reassess their current efforts being made, but also to provide additional resources to close the gaps.”