OSHA Releases COVID-19 Standard for Healthcare, Updates Guidance for Other Industries

Author: Emily Scace, XpertHR Legal Editor

June 14, 2021

After much anticipation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released an emergency temporary standard (ETS) on COVID-19.

The ETS applies only to healthcare. However, the agency has also updated its guidance on mitigating and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, which applies to all non-healthcare industries.

Healthcare ETS

The ETS includes requirements for a written COVID-19 plan, patient screening and management, personal protective equipment (PPE), physical distancing, physical barriers, cleaning and disinfection, ventilation, health screening, vaccination, training, recordkeeping, and respiratory protection.

It applies to "all settings where any employee provides healthcare services or healthcare support services." However, it excludes:

  • First aid provided by an employee who is not a licensed healthcare provider;
  • Dispensing of prescriptions by pharmacists in retail settings;
  • Certain ambulatory care settings;
  • Home healthcare settings where employees are fully vaccinated, non-employees are screened prior to entry, and people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 are not present;
  • Healthcare support services not performed in a healthcare setting, such as off-site laundry or medical billing; and
  • Telehealth services performed outside of a setting where direct patient care occurs.

In addition, if a healthcare setting is embedded within a non-healthcare setting, such as a medical clinic in a manufacturing facility, the ETS applies only to the embedded healthcare setting and not to the remainder of the facility.

Updated General Industry Guidance

OSHA's updated guidance, which applies to any employer or worker not covered by the healthcare ETS, aligns with the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unless otherwise required by a particular jurisdiction, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect workers from COVID-19 in workplaces where all employees are fully vaccinated, according to OSHA. Therefore, the primary focus of the new guidance is on protecting unvaccinated workers or those who are at higher risk from COVID-19, such as individuals with compromised immune systems for whom vaccination is less likely to be effective.

OSHA's recommendations include:

  • Granting time off for employees to get vaccinated;
  • Instructing unvaccinated workers who have had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, as well as any workers who are infected or displaying COVID-19 symptoms, to stay home from work;
  • Implementing physical distancing for unvaccinated and high-risk workers in communal work areas;
  • Providing unvaccinated and high-risk workers with face coverings or surgical masks, unless the work task requires a respirator or other PPE;
  • Educating and training workers on the employer's COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in a language they understand;
  • Suggesting that unvaccinated customers, visitors or guests wear face coverings;
  • Maintaining ventilation systems;
  • Performing routine cleaning and disinfection; and
  • Implementing retaliation protections and setting up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns about hazards related to COVID-19.

The guidance also reminds employers of compliance obligations under existing OSHA standards that may apply to COVID-19 hazards, such as the injury and illness recordkeeping standard, requirements for the provision of PPE, respiratory protection and hazard communication.

At higher-risk workplaces with mixed vaccination-status workers, OSHA recommends that employers take additional steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Higher-risk workplaces may include those involving:

  • Close and/or prolonged proximity between unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers, such as on production or assembly lines;
  • Frequent contact with other unvaccinated or high-risk individuals in community settings in areas with elevated community transmission of COVID-19;
  • Sharing of employer-provided transportation; and
  • Communal housing or living quarters with other unvaccinated or high-risk individuals.

Recommendations for workplaces with these risk factors include:

  • Staggering break, arrival and departure times;
  • Providing visual cues to reinforce physical distancing;
  • Proper spacing and/or use of barriers between workers on production or assembly lines; and
  • Increasing distance from non-employees, such as customers, with unknown vaccination status.