Acting on instructions from President Joe Biden, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a stronger worker safety guidance to help employers and workers implement coronavirus prevention programs in the workplace.
The guidance, “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace,” may be accessed online at https://www.osha.gov/coronavirus/safework.
This guidance is intended to inform employers and workers in most workplace settings (outside of healthcare) to help them identify risks of being exposed to and/or contracting COVID-19 at work, and to help them determine appropriate control measures to implement in order to avoid spreading or becoming infected with the virus.
COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease that is spread from person to person through particles produced when an infected person exhales, talks, vocalizes, sneezes, or coughs. COVID-19 may also be transmitted when people touch a contaminated object and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth, although that is less common.
COVID-19 is highly transmissible and can be spread by people who have no symptoms and who do not know that they are infected. Particles containing the virus can travel more than 6 feet, especially indoors. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that over fifty percent of the recent spread of the virus is from individuals with no symptoms at the time of spread.
According to OSHA, these are the key matters that workers need to know about COVID-19 protections in the workplace:
- The best way to protect yourself is to stay far enough away from other people so that you are not breathing in particles produced by an infected person – generally at least 6 feet (about 2 arm lengths), although this is not a guarantee, especially in enclosed spaces or those with poor ventilation.
- Practice good personal hygiene and wash your hands often. Always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, or use the inside of your elbow, and do not spit. Monitor your health daily and be alert for COVID-19 symptoms (such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of smell, or other symptoms of COVID-19).
- Face coverings are simple barriers to help prevent your respiratory droplets or aerosols from reaching others. Not all face coverings are the same; the CDC recommends that face coverings be made of at least two layers of a tightly woven breathable fabric, such as cotton, and should not have exhalation valves or vents.
- The main function of wearing a face covering is to protect those around you, in case you are infected but not showing symptoms. Studies show that face coverings reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth.
- Studies also show that, although not their primary value, face coverings can reduce the wearers’ risk of infection in certain circumstances, depending upon the face covering.
- You should wear a face covering even if you do not feel sick. This is because people with COVID-19 who never develop symptoms (asymptomatic) and those who are not yet showing symptoms (pre-symptomatic) can still spread the virus to other people.
- It is especially important to wear a face covering when you are unable to stay at least 6 feet apart from others, since COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with one another. But wearing a face covering does not eliminate the need for physical distancing or other control measures, such as handwashing.
- It is important to wear a face covering and remain physically distant from co-workers and customers even if you have been vaccinated, because it is not known at this time how vaccination affects transmissibility.
- Many employers have established COVID-19 prevention programs that include a number of important steps to keep workers safe – including steps from telework to flexible schedules to personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings. Ask your employer about plans in your workplace.
Under the OSH Act, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
Implementing a workplace COVID-19 prevention program is the most effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at work, according to OSHA.
The agency suggests that workers who are vaccinated must continue to follow protective measures, such as wearing a face covering and remaining physically distant, because at this time, there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines prevent transmission of the virus from person-to-person. The CDC explains that experts still need to understand more about the protection that COVID-19 vaccines provide before deciding to change recommendations on the steps that everyone should take to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.