Maintaining Workplace Safety as States Lift COVID-19 Restrictions

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, with cases declining in some areas as vaccinations become more available. However, the U.S. is far from the goal of “herd immunity” and access to vaccines still eludes many Americans. Still, some state officials believe that the progress warrants a lift of restrictions on face masks, capacity, and other safety related measures for businesses. Texas, Wyoming, and Mississippi governors recently removed COVID-19 restrictions, while the governor of South Dakota reminded people that his state never had such restrictions. Other states may follow suit.

Employers eager to resume “business as usual” should keep in mind that they still are subject to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements for a safe and healthy workplace. That includes evaluating COVID-19 risks and implementing preventive procedures. Most employers need to comply with OSHA guidance to maintain a written COVID-19 prevention plan that outlines company policies for face masks, social distancing, enhanced disinfection, and other measures. President Biden directed OSHA to develop an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to address COVID-19 by March 15, but the agency has indicated that the draft is still under review.

Earlier guidance from OSHA includes recommendations that are likely to be a part of the ETS.

Face masks — Cloth coverings or surgical masks protect the wearer and surrounding people by reducing exposure to droplets and preventing the spread in cases of asymptomatic infection.

Social distancing —  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a distance of six feet between employees and customers. OSHA usually follows CDC standards.

Equal treatment regardless of vaccine status — The CDC states that vaccinated employees as well as those unvaccinated need to follow employer safety protocols and guidance, since vaccination does not completely prevent contracting and spreading COVID-19.

Barriers — In places where physical distancing is not possible, barriers must be installed between workers.

Preventive maintenance — Improving ventilation, providing hand sanitizers and disinfectants, and routine cleaning are also part of earlier guidance and may become part of the ETS.

Industry-specific standards — For workplaces that have a higher likelihood of exposure to COVID-19, other requirements may be implemented. A National Emphasis Program issued by OSHA on March 12 describes procedures to protect employees in high-hazard industries.

Changing standards may seem confusing for employers, but a focus on workplace safety will yield appropriate procedures. Keep communications open with employees and customers as you respond to COVID-19. And your employment attorney will be a valuable resource. As always, we are happy to help.

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