OSHA PPE requirements and COVID-19

COVID-19 has not changed an employer’s responsibilities nor the primary tenets of OSHA’s PPE Standard. Employers must begin by conducting a hazard assessment in accordance with the PPE standard (29 CFR 1910.132) to determine the PPE requirements for their unique work site. PPE should be treated as the “last line of defense” in the Hierarchy of Controls. Since elimination or replacing the hazard is unfeasible, the first line of defense is engineering controls. These are mechanical methods of separating an employee from the exposure to COVID-19, such as improved air filtration systems, increasing ventilation rates, or installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards.

The second line of defense is administrative controls, which include focusing on changing human behavior to reduce exposure to a hazard. Examples include asking sick employees to stay home, minimizing contact with virtual meetings, telework, making it easier for workers to stay six feet apart from each other, staggered shifts, and training workers on COVID-19 risk factors and protective behaviors. It also includes providing the resources for safe work practices such as face coverings, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizers, disinfectants, and disposable towels for cleaning work surfaces.

After considering engineering and administrative controls as well as safe work practices, employers must determine if PPE (such as gloves, gowns, surgical masks, and face shields) is necessary for employees to work safely.

In its recent Guidance on Returning to Work, OSHA reminds employers to reduce the need for PPE in light of potential equipment shortages. “If PPE is necessary to protect workers from exposure to SARS-CoV-2 during particular work tasks when other controls are insufficient or infeasible, or in the process of being implemented, employers should either consider delaying those work tasks until the risk of SARS-CoV-2 exposure subsides or utilize alternative means to accomplish business needs and provide goods and services to customers. If PPE is needed, but not available, and employers cannot identify alternative means to accomplish business needs safely, the work tasks must be discontinued.”

Special considerations related to COVID-19:

  • If temperature screening of employees and/or visitors is part of your safety program, be sure the temperature taker is trained and protected from exposure with the proper PPE.
  • Cloth face coverings are not PPE. However, they are intended to reduce the spread of potentially infectious respiratory droplets from the wearer to others. Since they are not considered PPE the employer doesn’t have to pay for them, however, it is a smart move and reassuring message to employees. OSHA has taken the position that the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1), may require employers to provide such masks as they are a feasible means of abatement in a control plan. Moreover, some state and/or local governments are not only requiring employees to wear face coverings at work but are also requiring employers to provide the cloth masks.

    For more information, review OSHA’s recent Q & A on face coverings.

  • When employers require employees to wear masks, there should be specific written regulations about when they must be worn, how to care for them, what medical or other protected reasons are valid exceptions, and what are the consequences if employees decline to wear them and do not meet the exception criteria. Training also is a good idea so employees can understand they do not substitute for social distancing or other administrative controls.
  • Employers must also be aware of situations where mask wearing can make it harder to breathe and do not in themselves create a hazard. For example, the California Department of Industrial Relations, in issuing its annual summer notice to employers on heat illness prevention noted, “Employers should be aware that wearing face coverings can make it more difficult to breathe and harder for a worker to cool off, so additional breaks may be needed to prevent overheating. Workers should have face coverings at all times, but they should be removed in outdoor high heat conditions to help prevent overheating as long as physical distancing can be maintained.”
  • N95 masks are considered respirators and if required in the workplace are subject to significant regulatory obligations under 1910.14. However, if an employee brings their own N95 or similar filtering facemask, they should be allowed to voluntarily wear them. The only regulatory burden is to provide the employee Appendix D of 1910.134. It is recommended that other types of respirators such as half-and-full-face, tight-fitting respirators, and PAPR’s be prohibited.
  • In March and April, OSHA issued temporary enforcement memoranda on relaxing respiratory protection enforcement.
  • Some employers have opted to make gloves available to workers, particularly those in work settings where employees are frequently touching the same surfaces or objects. Gloves should cover the entire hand, up to the wrist and employees need to be instructed on the proper way to remove clothes to ensure that it does not cause contamination.

What type of PPE is best for your workplace?

OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 identifies PPE requirements based on four risk categories of worker exposure to COVID-19. Workers in the very high-risk exposure level, such as healthcare, laboratory, and morgue workers are likely to need to wear gloves, a gown, a face shield or goggles and either a face mask or a respirator. Workers who interact with known or suspected COVID-19 patients should wear a respirator. The same PPE use is recommended for workers in the high exposure risk category, including healthcare delivery and support staff, medical transport workers, and mortuary worker.

The moderate exposure risk category includes those that require frequent and/or close contact with the general public in areas with community transmission of COVID-19, such as teachers, retail outlets, restaurants, and other public businesses. OSHA recommends that workers in this category wear some combination of gloves, a mask, gown and/or a face shield or goggles based on the level of exposure. For those in the low exposure risk category, such as teleworkers, OSHA does not recommend PPE.

OSHA has also published guidance for many specific industries that offers recommendations for engineering and administrative controls as well as PPE. The PPE Safety and Health Topics page provides additional information about PPE selection, provision, use, and other related topics.

Takeaway:

Employers can help protect themselves from OSHA fines and enhance their return-to-work protocols by:

  • Updating their Injury and Illness Prevention Program to align with Fed and State OSHA guidance and any specific industry guidance.
  • Implementing the generally applicable infection prevention control measures identified above.
  • Maintaining any records on safety and health measures implemented.
  • Documenting all training provided to employees.
  • Recognize that new guidance is being issued at the federal and state level almost daily and stay up to date.

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