March 12, 2020

OSHA Publishes Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for Coronavirus

On March 9, OSHA published a document titled “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19” (PDF), a set of recommendations intended to help employers prevent or slow occupational spread of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. According to the press release, the guidance is part of the Department of Labor’s continuing efforts to provide resources to workers and employers about the COVID-19 outbreak.

“To reduce the impact of COVID-19 outbreak conditions on businesses, workers, customers, and the public, it is important for all employers to plan now for COVID-19,” the document reads, adding that while employers may have already planned for flu outbreaks, “planning for COVID-19 may involve updating plans to address the specific exposure risks, sources of exposure, routes of transmission, and other unique characteristic of SARS-CoV-2.”

The guide explains the symptoms of COVID-19—fever, cough, shortness of breath, and sometimes other respiratory symptoms—and that it primarily spreads between people within about six feet of each other, through droplets produced when the infected person coughs or sneezes. According to OSHA, workplaces may experience worker absenteeism; changes in patterns of commerce, meaning that demand for certain goods might increase significantly, but fall significantly in others; and interrupted shipments or deliveries.

According to OSHA, all workplaces should take basic steps to reduce employees’ risk of exposure—including by promoting frequent hand washing, encouraging sick workers to stay home, and providing customers and the public with tissues and trash receptacles—and should have a contingency for outbreaks. “Lack of continuity planning can result in a cascade of failures as employers attempt to address challenges of COVID-19 with insufficient resources and workers who might not be adequately trained for jobs they may have to perform under pandemic conditions,” OSHA warns.

Workers at Risk

OSHA’s guidance divides workers into four categories based on the likelihood that they will be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through their work: very high risk, high risk, medium risk, and lower risk. Most American workers will probably fall in either the lower or medium exposure risk levels, OSHA said.

Very high exposure risk jobs have high potential to be exposed to known or suspected sources of the virus through specific procedures involving airborne droplets produced by known or suspected COVID-19 patients. This category includes healthcare workers such as doctors, nurses, and dentists performing aerosol-generating procedures, such as cough induction procedures and dental exams on known or suspected patients; healthcare or lab workers collecting or handling specimens from known or suspected patients; and morgue workers performing autopsies on the bodies of people who are known or suspected to have had COVID-19 at the time of their death.

High exposure risk jobs are those which involve close contact with known or suspected COVID-19 patients. These include healthcare delivery and support staff, such as doctors and nurses; medical transport workers, such as ambulance drivers; and mortuary workers involved with preparing the bodies of people known or suspected of having COVID-19 at the time of their death. Jobs categorized as high or very high exposure risk should adopt engineering controls such as isolating patients if possible; administrative controls such as requesting patients and family members to immediately report symptoms of respiratory illness following their arrival at a facility; following safe work practices; and using PPE such as face masks and respirators.

Medium exposure risk jobs involve frequent or close contact with people who may be infected with the virus causing COVID-19 but are not known or suspected patients. Depending on whether an area has ongoing community transmission of the virus, this category may include workers who have contact with the general public, or it might only include workers who have contact with travelers returning from locations that have community transmission. OSHA recommends that employers and workers in this category provide face masks to ill workers and separate them from healthy workers until they can leave the workplace, among other engineering and administrative controls.

Lower exposure risk jobs are those that do not require contact with known COVID-19 patients, suspected patients, or the general public. Workers and employers in this category should stay up to date on public health information about COVID-10.

Finally, workers who live or travel abroad should be aware that governments may restrict domestic or international travel as outbreaks develop, limiting the U.S. government’s ability to assist American workers in those countries.

WHO Declares COVID-19 a Pandemic

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom announced yesterday that COVID-19 is now a pandemic.

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” Adhanom said. “Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.

“If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission.”

COVID-19 is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. Globally, 118 thousand cases have been confirmed, with nearly 4,300 deaths. More than 90 percent of cases are in four countries, two of which, China and South Korea, are experiencing significant decreases in new cases. New cases in China, where the pandemic began, have dwindled in recent weeks, suggesting that the restrictions on travel and large gatherings instituted in the country have been effective.

CDC Releases Guidance on Cleaning and Disinfection

Interim recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide guidance on the cleaning and disinfection of environments that have been visited by individuals with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. The guidelines are intended for non-healthcare facilities such as schools, colleges and universities, offices, daycare centers, businesses, and community centers.

CDC recommends that areas used by ill people should be closed off for as long as practicable before beginning cleaning and disinfection. Other recommendations include suggestions for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces with a bleach solution. Cleaning staff should wear disposable gloves and gowns.

Visit AIHA’s Coronavirus Outbreak Resource Center for links to CDC’s guidance and other resources.