Keeping workers safe — OSHA guidance on masks, testing, training, hygiene

by Brianna Crandall — August 19, 2020 — As non-essential businesses continue the reopening process after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has added additional resources and outreach efforts to help employers and managers keep workers safe, and to help workers know their rights and what to expect in the “new normal.”

Highlighted below are OSHA’s latest efforts to educate and protect American workers and help employers provide healthy workplaces as the coronavirus pandemic evolves. OSHA has previously published numerous alerts, advisories and resources for various industries.

Guidance on Returning to Work

In June, OSHA issued guidance to assist employers reopening non-essential businesses and their employees returning to work during the evolving coronavirus pandemic.

The guidance supplements the US Department of Labor (DOL) and US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’s) previously developed Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 and the White House’s Guidelines for Opening Up America Again.

The new guidelines provide general principles for updating restrictions originally put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. During each phase of the reopening process, employers should continue to focus on strategies for basic hygiene, social distancing, identification and isolation of sick employees, workplace controls and flexibilities, and employee training.

OSHA says non-essential businesses should reopen as state and local governments lift stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders, and follow public health recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal requirements or guidelines. Employers should continue to consider ways to use workplace flexibilities, such as remote work and alternative business operations, to provide goods and services to customers.

OSHA recommends that employers continually monitor federal, state, and local government guidelines for updated information about ongoing community transmission and mitigation measures, as well as for evolving guidance on disinfection and other best practices for worker protection.

The new Guidance on Returning to Work (PDF file) is available from the OSHA website.

Reopening guidance for employers

As more workplaces begin to reopen, OSHA is reminding employers that worker safety remains a priority amid both coronavirus and common workplace hazards.

In all phases of reopening, employers need to plan for potential hazards related to the coronavirus, as well as those stemming from routine workplace processes. Employers should be aware that the pandemic might increase employee stress, fatigue and distractions and should consider these factors in planning their employees’ return to work to ensure operations resume in a safe and healthful manner. Employers should also carefully plan before attempting to increase production or tasks to make up for downtime to avoid exposing employees to additional safety and health hazards.

As part of their reopening plans, OSHA recommends employers provide workers with “refreshers” on safety and health training and address maintenance issues they may have deferred during a shutdown. Employers should also revisit and update standard operating procedures and remember that exposures to hazards may increase during shutdown and start-up periods.

It is important for employers to review and address process safety issues — including stagnant or expired chemicals — as part of their reopening effort. Employers also should remember that Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C. 660(c), prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for raising concerns about safety and health conditions.

OSHA is providing coronavirus-related guidance to help employers develop policies and procedures that address the following issues:

  • Workplace flexibilities;
  • Engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment;
  • Training workers on the signs, symptoms and risk factors associated with the coronavirus;
  • Basic hygiene and housekeeping practices;
  • Social distancing practices;
  • Identifying and isolating sick workers;
  • Return to work after worker illness or exposure; and
  • Anti-retaliation practices.

See the OSHA announcement for the specific links to the list above. OSHA’s guidance for employers also includes frequently asked questions related to coronavirus in the workplace such as worksite testing, temperature checks and health screenings, and the need for personal protective equipment (PPE).

The agency reminds stakeholders that existing OSHA standards that apply to protecting workers from infection remain in place as employers and workers return to work.

Coronavirus FAQs

OSHA also published frequently asked questions (FAQs) and answers to help protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus, based on inquiries received from the public.

The COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions provide guidance to employers and employees about topics such as the best practices to prevent the spread of infection during the coronavirus pandemic, workers’ rights to express concerns about workplace conditions, testing for the coronavirus, worker training and returning to work.

FAQs about masks and respirators

Among the FAQs described above were a series of frequently asked questions and answers regarding the proper use of masks in the workplace. As the US economy reopens for business, millions of Americans are wearing masks in their workplace for the first time.

The new guidance outlines the differences between cloth face coverings, surgical masks and respirators. It reminds employers not to use surgical masks or cloth face coverings when respirators are needed. In addition, the guidance notes the need for social distancing measures, even when workers are wearing cloth face coverings, and recommends following the CDC’s guidance on washing face coverings.

Previously, OSHA had published five guidance documents aimed at expanding the availability of respirators.

PSAs and billboards

Most recently, OSHA undertook a public service messaging effort to remind workers that the agency is committed to ensuring their safety and health during the coronavirus pandemic.

OSHA is using public service audio announcements in English and Spanish, as well as bilingual digital and print billboard messaging, to encourage employees to contact OSHA with their concerns about workplace safety amid the coronavirus pandemic. Billboards will appear in states under federal OSHA jurisdiction.

14 additional translations of poster on proper use of respirators

To help workers who speak other languages, OSHA published the “Seven Steps to Correctly Wear a Respirator at Work” poster in 14 additional languages. Initially available in English and Spanish, the poster demonstrates and describes seven steps every worker should follow when putting on and taking off a respirator.

The steps include:

  • Properly washing your hands before putting on and after removing the respirator;
  • Inspecting the respirator for damage;
  • Putting on and adjusting the respirator to achieve a proper seal;
  • Avoiding touching the respirator while wearing it; and
  • Removing and disposing of the respirator.

The poster will be available for download in the following languages:

  • Arabic
  • Brazilian Portuguese
  • Chinese Simplified
  • Chinese Traditional
  • French Creole
  • Hmong
  • Korean
  • Kunama
  • Polish
  • Russian
  • Somali
  • Tagalog
  • Thai
  • Vietnamese

“Seven Steps to Correctly Wear a Respirator at Work” is initially available in English and Spanish.

Alerts to protect stockroom and loading dock workers in retail

Finally, OSHA has issued an alert listing safety tips that employers can follow to protect stockroom and loading dock workers in the retail industry from exposure to the coronavirus.

Safety measures employers can implement include:

  • Stock displays (e.g., shelves and freezers) during slow periods or shifts during which stores are closed to minimize contact with the public.
  • If stocking occurs while stores are open, use barriers or markers to physically separate shelf stockers from customers.
  • Maintain at least 6 feet between co-workers and customers, where possible.
  • Limit customer capacity in stores.
  • Coordinate with vendors and delivery companies to minimize the need for stockroom and loading dock worker contact with delivery drivers.
  • Allow workers to wear masks over their nose and mouth to prevent spread of the virus.
  • Encourage workers to report any safety and health concerns.

The newCOVID-19 Guidance for Stockroom and Loading Dock Workers” is available for download in English and Spanish.

Additional resources

Visit OSHA’s COVID-19 webpage frequently for updates on worker safety, and visit OSHA’s Publications webpage for other useful workplace safety information. For further information about coronavirus, visit CDC’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) landing page.