On July 2, 2020, the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) supplemented its prior COVID-19 guidance (Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 and Guidance on Returning to Work) with additional FAQ guidance covering topics such as best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection in the workplace, workplace testing, and worker training. Though the guidance is not a standard or regulation itself (and therefore creates no new legal obligations for employers), it provides practical answers to actual inquiries OSHA received from the public regarding COVID-19 and workplace safety, and refers to pertinent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance and applicable OSHA standards for employers to consider.

OSHA grouped the FAQs by topic for easy navigation. Several of the key FAQs for employers are summarized below.

General Information

What precautions can employers in non-healthcare workplaces take to protect workers from COVID-19?

Employers should assess worker exposure to hazards and risks and implement infection prevention measures to reasonably address them consistent with OSHA Standards. Such measures could include:

  • Promoting frequent and thorough handwashing or sanitizing with at least 60% alcohol hand sanitizer;
  • Encouraging workers to stay at home if sick;
  • Encouraging use of cloth face coverings;
  • Training employees on proper respiratory etiquette, social distancing, and other steps they can take to protect themselves;
  • Considering using stanchions, temporary barriers, shields, and spacing out workstations to help keep workers and others at the worksite at least 6 feet away from each other;
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces (e.g., door handles, sink handles, workstations, restroom stalls) as much as possible, but at least daily.

Employers subject to OSHA’s PPE standard must also provide and require the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) when needed, and must conduct job hazard assessments to determine the appropriate type and level of PPE required.

The US Department of Labor and US Department of Health and Human Services’ Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 and OSHA’s Prevent Worker Exposure to COVID-19 alert provide more information on steps all employers can take to reduce workers’ risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. Learn more about preventing the spread of COVID-19 from OSHA and CDC.

Cleaning and Disinfection

How should I clean and disinfect my workplace?

Employers should review the CDC’s updated information about cleaning and disinfecting public spaces, workplaces, businesses, schools, and homes.

Cloth Face Coverings

What are the key differences between cloth face coverings, surgical masks, and respirators?

Cloth face coverings:

  • May be commercially produced or homemade garments, scarves, bandanas, or items made from t-shirts or other fabrics.
  • Are worn in public over the nose and mouth to contain the wearer’s potentially infectious respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.
  • Are not considered PPE, and will not protect the wearer against airborne transmissible infectious agents due to loose fit and lack of seal or inadequate filtration.
  • Are not appropriate substitutes for PPE such as N95 respirators or surgical masks in workplaces where respirators or surgical masks are recommended or required to protect the wearer.
  • May be used by almost any worker, but those who have trouble breathing or are otherwise unable to put on or remove a mask without assistance should not wear one.
  • May be disposable or reusable after proper washing.

Surgical masks:

  • Are typically cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as medical devices (though not all devices that look like surgical masks are actually medical-grade, cleared devices).
  • Are used to protect workers against splashes and sprays (i.e., droplets) containing potentially infectious materials. In this capacity, surgical masks are considered PPE. Under OSHA’s PPE standard (29 CFR 1910.132), employers must provide any necessary PPE at no-cost to workers.
  • May also be worn to contain the wearer’s respiratory droplets (e.g., healthcare workers, such as surgeons, wear them to avoid contaminating surgical sites, and dentists and dental hygienists wear them to protect patients).
  • Should be placed on sick individuals to prevent the transmission of respiratory infections that spread by large droplets, but will not protect the wearer against airborne transmissible infectious agents due to loose fit and lack of seal or inadequate filtration.
  • May be used by almost anyone.
  • Should be properly disposed of after use.

Respirators (e.g., N95 masks or filtering facepieces (FFRs)):

  • Are used to prevent workers from inhaling small particles, including airborne transmissible or aerosolized infectious agents.
  • Must be provided and used in accordance with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134), which requires certification by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; proper filter material (e.g., N95 or better); proper training, fit testing, availability of appropriate medical evaluations and monitoring, cleaning, and oversight by a knowledgeable staff member; and when necessary to protect workers, a respiratory protection program compliant with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard.
  • Respirators may be used voluntarily if permitted by the employer, but if an employer permits voluntary use of respirators, employees must receive the information contained in Appendix D of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard.
Are employers required to provide cloth face coverings to workers?

No. Cloth face coverings are not considered PPE and are not intended to be used when workers need PPE for protection against exposure to occupational hazards. Thus, OSHA’s PPE standards do not require employers to provide workers with cloth face coverings.

  • OSHA’s General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, requires each employer to furnish a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. Employers’ control measures may include a combination of engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices like social distancing, and PPE.
  • However, employers can ensure employees wear cloth face coverings as a means of abatement in a control plan designed to address hazards from COVID-19, as source control (i.e. preventing individuals infected with COVID-19 without knowing it from spreading the virus) in instances where transmission risk cannot be controlled through engineering or administrative controls, including social distancing.
Should workers wear a cloth face covering at work, in accordance with the CDC’s recommendation for all people to do so when in public?

OSHA generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work. Face coverings are intended to prevent wearers who have COVID-19 without knowing it (i.e., those who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic) from spreading potentially infectious respiratory droplets to others.

Wearing cloth face coverings, if appropriate for the work environment and job tasks, conserves other types of PPE, such as surgical masks, for healthcare settings.

However, employers have the discretion to determine whether to allow employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace based on the specific circumstances present at the work site. Employers may determine that wearing cloth face coverings presents or exacerbates a hazard. For example:

  • Cloth face coverings could become contaminated with chemicals used in the work environment, causing workers to inhale the chemicals that collect on the face covering.
  • Over the duration of a work shift, cloth face coverings might also become damp (from workers breathing) or collect infectious material from the work environment (e.g., droplets of other peoples’ infectious respiratory secretions).
  • Workers may also need to use PPE that is incompatible with the use of a cloth face covering (e.g., an N95 respirator).

Where cloth face coverings are not appropriate in the work environment or during certain job tasks (because, for instance, they could become contaminated or exacerbate heat illness), employers can provide PPE, such as face shields and/or surgical masks, instead of encouraging workers to wear cloth face coverings. Like cloth face coverings, surgical masks and face shields can help contain the wearer’s potentially infectious respiratory droplets and can help limit spread of COVID-19 to others.

Note: cloth face coverings are not considered PPE and cannot be used in place of respirators when respirators are otherwise required. Employers can learn more about cloth face coverings on the CDC website.

In situations when employees and members of the public need to lip-read to communicate, employers should consider evaluating their accessible communication policies and procedures to factor in potentially providing masks with clear windows.

If workers wear cloth face coverings, do employers still need to ensure social distancing measures in the workplace?

Yes. Cloth face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing measures.

Employer Requirements

What should an employer do to assess the risk of an employee being exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the workplace?

All employers should conduct risk and hazard assessments for all types of workers and then create plans to address identified hazards. Employers can use OSHA’s tools for hazard identification and assessment.

Has OSHA waived any requirements of its standards in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

No. All OSHA standards remain in effect. However, OSHA is exercising temporary enforcement discretion for certain provisions of OSHA standards, such as those for initial or recurring training, audits, reviews, testing, and assessments.

For the most current information, visit the Standards page of the COVID-19 Safety and Health Topics page, which lists all enforcement discretion memoranda related to the pandemic. These memoranda also appear on OSHA’s Enforcement Memos page.

Personal Protective Equipment

Can [employees] bring [their] own personal protective equipment to use if [they] believe [they are] at risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on the job?

Yes, if the employer permits it and the PPE is not determined to be required to protect workers.

OSHA requires covered employers to provide employees with required PPE necessary to protect employees on the job. Employers should follow the latest OSHA and CDC guidance, including guidance on hazard assessment and PPE selection.

For PPE that is not determined to be required to protect workers, employers may permit or prohibit the use of worker’s personal equipment. CDC recommends universal use of cloth face coverings, which are not considered PPE. Growing evidence shows that cloth face coverings help prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Employers must train workers about how to put on, use, and take off PPE safely.

For more information, see OSHA’s PPE Safety and Health Topics page and the PPE standards (29 CFR Part 1910, Subpart I).

Return to Work

When can employees who have had COVID-19, or may have had COVID-19, return to work?

The CDC provides guidance about the discontinuation of home isolation for people with COVID-19. The Medical Information page of OSHA’s COVID-19 Safety and Health Topics page also provides information about returning to work after having COVID-19. This guidance applies to workers with COVID-19 symptoms, even if they were not tested for COVID-19.

Testing for COVID-19

What should employers do when an employee tests positive for COVID-19?

Workers who test positive for COVID-19 will be notified of their results by their healthcare providers or public health department and will likely be advised to self-isolate or seek medical care. OSHA recommends that workers tell their supervisors if they have tested positive for COVID-19 so that employers can take steps, such as cleaning and disinfection, to protect other workers. Employers who become aware of a case among their workers should:

Is an employer required to notify other employees if a worker gets COVID-19 or tests positive for COVID-19?

No. OSHA does not require employers to notify other employees if one of their coworkers gets COVID-19. However, employers must take appropriate steps to protect employees from exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in the workplace. These steps might include specific actions as a result of a confirmed case, such as cleaning and disinfecting the work environment, notifying other workers to monitor themselves for signs/symptoms of COVID-19, or implementing a screening program in the workplace (such as for signs/symptoms of COVID-19 among workers).

The CDC Guidance for Business and Employers recommends employers determine which employees may have been exposed to the virus and inform employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. However, employers should maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the information disclosed and method of disclosure must comply with applicable federal, state, and local laws.

Employers and workers can visit the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s COVID-19 webpage and frequently asked questions for more about this topic.

Training

What topics should employers cover in COVID-19 training for workers?

Employers should consider training workers about:

  • The basics of how SARS-CoV-2 spreads;
  • Their risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 on the job;
  • Appropriate cleaning and disinfection in the workplace;
  • Measures being taken to protect employees from exposure and infection, including handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, social distancing, and use of any necessary workplace controls and/or PPE; and
  • What employees should do if they are sick, including staying home and reporting any signs/symptoms of COVID-19 to their supervisor.

Some OSHA standards require employers to provide specific training to workers. For example, there are training requirements in OSHA’s PPE standards (29 CFR Part 1910, Subpart I), including the Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134).

The necessary training can vary depending on a worker’s job tasks, exposure risks, and the type of controls implemented to protect workers. See OSHA’s COVID-19 Safety and Health Topics page for more information.

Worker Protection Concerns

Can [an] employer force [an employee] to work if [the employee has] concerns about COVID-19, including a coworker having tested positive, personal medical concerns, or a high-risk family member living at my home?

Generally, employers may require their employees to come to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some government emergency orders may affect which businesses can remain open during the pandemic.

Under federal law, employers must provide a safe and healthful workplace for employees. Under section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, a worker who refused to work would be protected from retaliation if:

  • The worker believes they faced death or serious injury (and the situation is so clearly hazardous that any reasonable person would believe the same thing);
  • The worker tried, where possible, to get his or her employer to correct the condition, was unable to obtain a correction, and there is no other way to do the job safely; or
  • The situation is so urgent that the worker does not have time to eliminate the hazard through regulatory channels, such as calling OSHA.

See 29 CFR 1977.12(b) for more information.

My workplace typically does not use disinfectants to clean and disinfect our workplace but has implemented those practices in the wake of COVID-19. Are there any rules or guidance about using these types of chemicals (other than following the instructions on the product’s label)?

Workers who clean the workplace must be protected from exposure to hazardous chemicals used for cleaning and disinfecting. Employers must conduct a hazard assessment and, based on the results, provide the appropriate protective equipment for using disinfectants and other chemicals. Employers may also need to implement a hazard communication program that provides safety data sheets, container labels, and training on the hazards of the chemicals in the workplace, in compliance with OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200).

Additional information on disinfecting a building or facility during the COVID-19 pandemic and preparing your workplace for COVID-19 is available, and will be updated as more information becomes available.

For guidance on navigating CDC, OSHA, EEOC, and other federal, state and local COVID-19 related guidance, contact your Baker McKenzie employment attorney.