Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

OSHA updates COVID-19 guidance

Posted by Jon Elliott on Wed, Feb 10, 2021


For nearly a year now, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other agencies have been issuing guidance to employers regarding COIVD-19, including identification, protection, and back-to-work procedures. One of incoming President Biden’s first Executive Orders (EO 13999 of January 21, 2021) directs OSHA to issue updated worker protection guidance to employers within two weeks. On January 29, OSHA met this requirement by publishing “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace,” which it explains is intended for employers and workers to use to identify risks and plan responses. The remainder of this note summarizes OSHA’s new guidance.

What do workers need to know about COVID-19?

As summarized in the guidance, workers need to know that:

  • the best self-protection is maintaining enough distance to avoid inhaling particles from an infected person – generally 6 feet, although this may be inadequate in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces.

  • good hygiene and frequent hand washing is useful

  • face coverings are valuable

    • they can protect others, and protection is improved by multiple layers and reduced by valves and vents

    • they can provide some protection to the wearer

    • they should be worn even when the wearer doesn’t feel sick

    • they are especially important when the wearer can’t maintain safe personal distancing

    • coverings should be worn even after COVID vaccination, since we don’t yet know how vaccinations affect transmissibility of the virus

  • workers should inquire about their employer’s COVID-19 prevention plans and programs

What COVID response roles should COVID-19 prevention programs provide for employers and workers?

The guidance notes that employers are responsible for providing safe and healthy workplaces free of recognized hazards – this is the “General Duty clause” (I’ve written about it several times, most recently HERE). The guidance enumerates important elements that should be included in COVID-19 prevention programs:

  • Assign a workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 issues.

  • Identify where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work. This includes a thorough hazard assessment to identify potential hazards, which OSHA notes will be most effective if it involves workers. 

  • Identify a combination of measures that will limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, in line with OSHA’s hierarchy of controls (eliminating the hazard, engineering controls, administrative policies, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other measures).

  • Consider protections for workers at higher risk for severe illness through supportive policies and practices (e.g., older workers, or those with disabilities or other medical conditions). 

  • Establish an effective communication system.

  • Educate and train workers on the employer’s COVID-19 policies and procedures.

  • Instruct workers who are infected or potentially infected to stay home and isolate or quarantine to prevent or reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19. Ensure that absence policies are non-punitive, and do not encourage sick workers to work.

  • Minimize the negative impact of quarantine and isolation on workers.  

  • Isolate workers who show symptoms at work, and send them home. 

  • Perform enhanced cleaning and disinfection after people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 have been in the facility, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cleaning and disinfection recommendations.

  • Provide guidance on screening and testing, following state or local guidance and priorities for screening and viral testing in workplaces. 

  • Record and report COVID-19 infections and deaths, as required by OSHA’s injury and illness (I&I) recording and reporting rules, and any state or local health agency requirements.

  • Implement protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns about COVID-19-related hazards.

  • Make a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available at no cost to all eligible employees. Provide information and training on the benefits and safety of vaccinations.

  • Don’t distinguish between workers who are or are not vaccinated; continue to require vaccinated workers to follow protective measures. 

  • Continue to comply with other applicable OSHA Standards, such as PPE requirements, respiratory protection, sanitation, protection from bloodborne pathogens, and OSHA's requirements for employee access to medical and exposure records.

In addition to this extended list, the new guidelines provide additional details about isolation/separation of possibly-infected employees, quarantines, physical distancing and physical separation measures, face coverings, ventilation, PPE, and routine cleaning and disinfection. 

Self-Assessment Checklist 

Does the organization have operations that are still open and staffed by employees or other workers?

Has the organization implemented (or at least prepared) adequate information and precautionary measures (e.g., equipment and procedures recommended by OSHA, CDC and EEOC)?

Is the organization ready to assess employee illnesses for possible COVID-19 infections, and if any arise to be able to evaluate whether the illnesses are work-related?

Where do I go for more information?

Information available via the Internet includes:

New OSHA guidance 

OSHA Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) webpage 

President Biden EO 13999 (1/21/21; as published in Federal Register on January 26) 

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About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 30 years. 

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

Tags: Health & Safety, OSHA, EEOC, Coronavirus, CDC, Covid-19