Running a business is feeling murky again.
The delta variant has added yet another challenge to an already difficult situation. Sharp increases in the numbers of COVID-19 cases are now pressuring some businesses to make hard choices about potentially sensitive issues, such as vaccines, face masks, and other safety measures.
If you’re currently having to make those calls for your company, you likely feel caught in the middle.
There is some good news, though. You don’t have to make those decisions on your own. Guidelines provided the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are available to help you make the right call for protecting your small business. Also, it’s the law.
For example, OSHA General Duty Clause, Section 5 notes that “each employer shall provide employment free from recognized hazards that cause deaths or serious harm.”
"OSHA has explicitly stated that its requirements apply to preventing occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2," says Darin Leong, Esq., a Honolulu, Hawaii-based attorney specializing in solving employment and labor issues. “Therefore, failing to provide reasonable safeguards to prevent COVID-19 exposure may result in citations and penalties issued by OSHA."
As an employer, those consequences may serve as motivation to review procedures and reevaluate processes. Here’s some direction to help you determine if what you currently have in place is enough.
State vs. Federal Requirements
Many states reduced restrictions that were introduced in 2020. But adhering to those loosened rules doesn’t mean you’re fully covered.
"Lighter restrictions imposed by a state will not override the minimum federal standards set by OSHA. Compliance with state and federal standards is required," states Leong.
OSHA & CDC Guidelines
OSHA has adopted guidelines comparable to those established by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), including the following:
- Provide employees and customers with soap, water, paper towels, and hand sanitizers to minimize the spread of the virus from the hands to the face.
- Identify high-traffic areas and surfaces that could be easily contaminated and implement procedures that identify when and how the site should be cleaned.
- Use EPA registered disinfectants when cleaning.
- Put up posters in employee areas and bathrooms showing proper handwashing techniques.
- Limit occupancy in your store.
- Mark the floor in six-foot increments where people gather – checkout lines, bathrooms, time clocks.
- Post signs showing the flow of traffic inside, especially in hallways and other areas which don't allow for six feet of spacing.
Identify and Isolate Sick Employees
- Check their temperature.
- Ask health questions.
- Encourage employees to stay home when sick.
- Consider increasing paid sick days.
- Establish a protocol for an employee who becomes sick at work, including isolating them until they can leave, and disinfecting spaces they touched.
- Inform employees if they have come in contact with COVID-positive co-workers. For privacy, you should avoid mentioning employees by name.
- According to CDC guidelines, a person should quarantine for 14 days if they have been closer than six feet and spent more than 15 minutes with a COVID-19 positive person.
- If you create a health record for each employee, you might be subject to Access to Employee Exposure and Medical Records standards, which would require protecting the files and storing them for the duration of employment plus 30-years. The rule doesn't apply to temperature checks which don't need to be recorded.
Workplace Controls and Flexibilities
- Incorporate engineering controls like barriers, shields, or enhanced ventilation for protection.
- Review Administrative controls and flexibilities like staggering work shifts, limiting breakroom capacity, promote online meetings, work remotely, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Do a hazard assessment on each position to determine the appropriate PPE. For some industries and jobs, stricter standards for PPE may apply. For example, cloth face coverings are not considered PPE as it protects other people from respiratory secretions, not the wearer.
- Training your employees is the most crucial step. Without your staff adhering to the process in place, you will not have success.
- Require your team to wear masks, gloves, sanitize areas for their protection and that of your customers.
It’s important to note that OSHA has different recommendations for vaccinated employees and non-vaccinated employees. For employers who don’t want to ask employees about their vaccination status, use the non-vaccinated suggestions for the entire staff. Having an extra layer of protection can mitigate the risks and work to keep your employees healthy.
Also, be aware that the direction provided to business owners today is likely to change. Leong recommends employers “keep apprised of evolving guidance from the CDC, OSHA, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and state departments of health.”
Business owners are facing some unique challenges right now. Keeping up with guidelines is the best way to stay within the law and protect your team and customers.