A Comprehensive Guide to Complying With OSHA’s General Duty and Reporting Obligations During the PandemicGreg Garner
Have you had employees have to stay home from work because they felt sick? Did you later learn that they got COVID-19? If so, you may not be following OSHA’s General Duty and Reporting obligations.
Not following those guidelines can result in a fine, but it will also keep employees from being able to do their jobs. Whether you have a small or large business, you need to protect your employees.
Read on to learn about updated OSHA General Duty and Reporting obligations as they relate to COVID-19.
OSHA General Duty Requirements
Complying with OSHA general duty requirements is essential even without COVID-19 as a threat. However, with the pandemic, employers should be extra diligent to comply. The OSHA General Duty clause states that employers need to provide employees with a safe place to work.
Employers should maintain workplaces that are free of recognized hazards that can cause harm or death. Because of how infectious and serious COVID-19 is, that makes COVID-19 one of those hazards.
Companies need to take reasonable steps to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19. If they don’t OSHA can give the company a citation. OSHA has given citations to companies that have failed to keep workers safe.
In addition to General Duty requirements, employers should also follow OSHA standards for personal protective equipment (PPE) and bloodborne pathogens (BBP). All of that can help keep employees safe when in the workplace with COVID-19 as a threat.
Complying With OSHA General Duty
Employers should do their best to comply with OSHA’s pandemic rules. Companies need to follow the General Duty clause to provide that safe workplace for employees. However, employers should also follow recommendations from state and local authorities.
Because COVID-19 cases and safety vary from state to state, federal guidelines may be more or less effective. If your state issues guidances for your type of workplace, you should comply with those rules as well as OSHA guidelines.
As an employer, you should also make sure everyone in your company understands the procedures for keeping the workplace safe. You can implement processes for when and how to wash hands, when and how to clean surfaces, and what PPE everyone should wear.
Then, you can make sure you take COVID-19 seriously in a healthcare setting or any other workplace. If you notice people aren’t following the rules, you can remind everyone of what to do so that you can stay in compliance with OSHA.
What Constitutes a Violation
Next, you should consider what constitutes a violation of OSHA’s pandemic rules. While you should aim to avoid violations, they may happen, especially as COVID-19 develops different mutations that can be as serious as the first strain.
As you consider what would violate OSHA regulations, you can make sure to avoid them in your workplace. Not only will that help you prevent a violation and a fine, but you can keep your employees safe when they’re at work.
Here are a few things that you need to have to prove a General Duty clause violation.
Not Keeping the Workplace Hazard-Free
If an employer doesn’t keep the workplace free of a hazard, that’s a sign of a violation. While it can be hard to keep a workplace completely free of COVID-19, you should do what you can to reduce the risk of exposure to your employees.
Luckily, you can do a few things to protect employees from exposure. Using PPE, such as masks, gloves, face shields, and protective clothing can all help. That way, employees can still do their jobs, but they can stay safe.
Good quality PPE can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other infections. Employers should provide PPE for workers so that employees don’t have to worry about paying for it out of pocket.
Then, you should implement a policy for wearing PPE when at work. That way, you can make sure employees comply to help you keep the workplace free of COVID-19.
Recognizing the Hazard
Another problem that can lead a company to violate OSHA’s General Duty clause is by knowing the hazard exists and not doing anything to mitigate it. Of course, COVID-19 may be present in the workplace, and employers that offer PPE and take other steps to prevent the spread are complying with OSHA.
However, if an employer knows that COVID-19 may be present but fails to take precautions, that could constitute a violation. You can’t always prevent COVID-19 or other hazards, but you should do what you can to protect employees from those risks.
As soon as you recognize that COVID-19 may be a hazard to your workers, you should implement protective measures. The measures could be as small as wearing PPE or taking employee temperatures when they come in to work.
Or you could do more and have anyone who can work remotely stay at home. That way, you can do more than recognize the hazard.
Hazard Could Cause Harm
If the hazard, such as COVID-19, could or did cause harm or death, that is another factor that can lead to an OSHA violation. When a hazard is likely to cause death or serious physical harm, that is a problem.
Fortunately, employers can work to reduce the effects and the chance of harm or death. Using PPE, having people stay far apart, and sending sick employees home can reduce the hazard in the office.
Now, if COVID-19 is in the workplace but you can isolate it, that may not be a problem. However, if someone has an exposure while at work, they could expose others, making the hazard worse.
Complying with OSHA requirements for the General Duty clause isn’t too hard. As long as you do what you can to reduce the spread of COVID-19, you should be okay.
Correcting the Hazard Was Feasible
The fourth element that can cause an OSHA violation is if correcting the hazard was relatively easy but the employer didn’t do it. If wearing masks and spreading desks far apart could have reduced the spread, not doing so would constitute a violation.
Now, there may be some workplaces where you can’t correct the hazard. Working with COVID-19 patients is risky, and it can be almost impossible to keep employees safe.
However, employers can still use sufficient PPE to protect workers. That way, employees can still work in that environment, but they can do so without as much of a risk of contracting COVID-19.
Whether in healthcare or another industry, compliance is essential to protecting employees, patients, customers, and others. COVID-19 is serious, but you can take steps to reduce the chance of transmitting it.
OSHA Reporting Requirements
OSHA’s General Duty and Reporting requirements work hand in hand, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. While you should make your workplace as safe as possible, some people may get sick with COVID.
When that happens, you need to know what to do to report those cases. Now, the lab that did the COVID-19 test will provide those results to state or local health authorities. The health authorities can use those numbers to track the spread of the disease.
However, employers aren’t off the hook when they have a positive case within the company. Your OSHA reporting obligation now covers reporting COVID cases in your workplace.
Employers should keep a log of injuries and illnesses that occur on the job, COVID-19 or not. Now with COVID, employers also need to track those cases when they come from the office.
Where the Employee Got Sick
If an employee gets COVID-19, they should consider where they got it. Ideally, they would have contracted the disease from outside of work, such as from a relative or when in public.
In those cases, you don’t need to log the illness because it wasn’t work-related. However, if that person goes to work when they have COVID and someone else gets it, you would need to report that second case. The second person got COVID from another person at work.
It can be hard to track down where someone got COVID, especially as more cases emerge. But you should do what you can to track whether the case came from work or not.
Then, you can add it to your illness log, and you can monitor the entire team for signs and symptoms. That way, you can prepare your workplace for what to do when you have more new COVID cases.
The Effects of the Illness
If you determine someone got COVID-19 at work, you may still need to report the case in your logs. You will need to report any instance where the infection requires someone to take time off of work. The same is true if you transfer someone or restrict the work.
You’ll need to report the case whenever someone requires medical treatment or loses consciousness. If someone receives an official diagnosis with COVID-19, that will also need to go in your logs.
And if the infection results in death, that will need to be part of your report as well.
While you don’t need to report infections that come from outside of work, they’re still important to note. Then, you can make other employees aware of their risk, and you can prepare for any cases that may come from that first individual coming to work while sick.
What to Do When Learning of a COVID-19 Case
When you learn of a positive COVID-19 case, you should take a few steps. Even if you don’t have to report it, you should learn as much as you can to reduce that hazard in your workplace.
You don’t need to use extensive inquiries into an employee’s life or medical history. However, you should ask them a few questions to analyze the risk of them transmitting COVID-19 to other workers.
Here are a few things you can do when you learn someone in your company tests positive for COVID-19.
Ask the Employee
First, you should ask the employee in question where they think they got COVID-19. If you haven’t had any positive cases in your workplace, odds are they didn’t get it at work.
But you may still want to ask the employee when they first showed symptoms and when they got COVID. If they have been to work since they first got the disease, it’s possible they have already transmitted it.
Even asymptomatic cases can still pass COVID-19 to others, so you should ask employees of their case history. And if the employee doesn’t volunteer the information, you should ask them when they tested positive for COVID.
Then, you can keep track of when cases emerge within your workplace.
Discuss Work and Personal Activities
You may also want to talk to employees about their work and personal schedule. Consider who they live with and where those people have been. If your employee has recently traveled or visited with a friend, you can ask about that.
Of course, you should maintain your employee’s privacy, and you shouldn’t force them to answer all of your questions. However, getting those answers can help you determine if you need to comply with the OSHA reporting obligation.
Give your employee a chance to speak about where they have been and how they may have contracted COVID. Then, you can make note of that even if you don’t need to report it.
Review the Workplace
Next, you should review the workplace, particularly the area where the employee with COVID works. You can review the area for signs of COVID-19 exposure, such as not using the right cleaning or disinfecting materials.
If you have had other employees get COVID-19, you can use that to inform your review. Perhaps employees who have gotten sick all work in the same space, or maybe they all didn’t clean their workspaces often enough.
You can use the results of your review to improve the workplace for everyone. Reminding workers of how they can stay safe and protect others can help you reduce the chance of other employees getting COVID-19 from work.
Following OSHA’s General Duty and Reporting Obligations
OSHA’s General Duty and Reporting obligations are an essential part of keeping workers safe. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, employers need to adapt those obligations to the new hazard.
That way, they can protect employees from the disease. And if someone does contract it, employers can take steps to keep others from getting sick.
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