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OSHA's New Guidance For Preventing The Spread Of COVID-19: Is Your Organization Compliant?

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited an auto parts manufacturer in Missouri for failing to implement or enforce COVID-19 protections following an employee's death from the virus.

In late August 2020, two machine operators at the employer's facility in Grandview, Missouri tested positive for COVID-19 only days apart. They operated a press together and frequently worked for hours at a time less than two feet apart without consistently wearing face masks.

Ten days later, two more workers who jointly operated a press also tested positive for COVID-19. On Sept. 19, 2020, one of the press operators who tested positive died. Two additional employees also tested positive.

OSHA conducted an investigation, during which OSHA's Office of Occupational Medicine and Nursing determined, with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the employee who died contracted COVID-19 on the job.

According to OSHA's Kansas City Area Director, the employer "failed to fully implement and enforce the use of feasible controls for employees to prevent the spread of coronavirus," including by not requiring the use of face masks and social distancing until after the employee's death.

OSHA cited the employer with one serious and one other-than-serious violation for failing to maintain safe working conditions under OSHA's general duty clause. The proposed penalties total $15,604.

The organization has 15 business days to comply with the citation and penalties; request an informal conference with OSHA's area director; or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. "OSHA Cites Missouri Auto Parts Manufacturer For Failing To Implement, Enforce Coronavirus Protections As Exposure Leads To Press Operator's Death" dol.gov (Feb. 23, 2021).

Commentary

In January 2021, OSHA issued “stronger worker safety guidance to help employers and workers implement a coronavirus prevention program and better identify risks which could lead to exposure and contraction.”

The document, “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace,” provides employers with updated recommendations and further explains existing safety and health standards.

All employers should review the document and modify their policies and practices to comply with its recommendations, including implementing and following social distancing protocols; using face masks and personal protective equipment; improving ventilation; and promoting good hygiene and routine cleaning.

Failing to follow the guidelines could be used as evidence in a negligence or wrongful death lawsuit.

OSHA advises employers to implement a coronavirus prevention program as the “most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus.” The agency recommends that such a program include the following:

1.   A hazard assessment;

2.   Control measures to limit the spread of the virus;

3.   Policies that do not punish employees for being absent in order to encourage potentially infected workers to stay home;

4.   Coronavirus policies and procedures communicated to workers in both English and Spanish; and

5.   Retaliation protection for workers who raise coronavirus-related concerns.

 

OSHA has stated that it will continue to update guidance in light of any new science, best practices, or standards. Employers must continue to watch for updated guidance and quickly modify policies following any additional changes.

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