CDC Experts Discuss Evolving COVID-19 Workplace Safety Rules

Public health leaders recommend taking a layered approach to reducing risks

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Fully vaccinated people can safely resume many indoor and outdoor activities without wearing a mask or social distancing, according to updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but some rules still apply. So how should employers approach workplace safety as they consider relaxing their policies?

The CDC guidance takes a layered approach to reducing COVID-19 transmission, said Lieutenant Commander Kevin Dunn, an environmental health officer in the U.S. Public Health Service and an industrial hygienist with the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

"This approach encourages using multiple mitigation strategies, and that may include things like adjusting the airflow or building ventilation, maybe altering the physical layout of your workplace," he said during a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) webcast that aired on May 20 for SHRM members.

Employers can also encourage continued physical distancing, masking and hand hygiene. Using as many of these different layers as practical is the most effective way to reduce the risk, he explained.

Based on vaccine research, however, people who have been fully vaccinated can start to do some of the things that they stopped doing because of the pandemic. But Dunn cautioned that some restrictions and safety recommendations are still in place.

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Stricter Rules May Apply

The CDC isn't able to issue recommendations that apply to every business, building or work environment. So some businesses still may be obligated to keep their policies in place under industry rules or state and local orders.

Some states, such as California, have not yet lifted mask mandates for fully vaccinated people, and the CDC's relaxed guidance doesn't apply to health care facilities, transportation hubs, prisons or homeless shelters.

Furthermore, businesses are free to keep mask requirements and social-distancing rules in place for workers and customers.

"So you still need to follow the guidance at your local workplace or local business," Dunn said, noting that employers should also look for information from regulatory agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). "There is a difference between providing good guidance or setting regulations."

For now, OSHA has said that employers should refer to CDC guidance while the agency updates its own material.

Resuming Business Travel

Employers also need to check for changing rules on travel before they resume business trips. The CDC's updated travel guidelines state that for domestic travel, fully vaccinated people do not need to get tested for the coronavirus before or after a trip or isolate upon their return. For international trips, vaccinated travelers do not need to obtain a pre-travel test before departing the U.S. (unless their destination requires it) and do not need to self-quarantine after arriving in the U.S.

However, international travelers still must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than three days before boarding a flight to the U.S., and the CDC recommends getting tested again three to five days after entering the country.

"Fully vaccinated" means that two weeks have passed since a person received a single-shot vaccine or the second dose of a two-shot vaccine.

"You should still watch out for symptoms of COVID-19, especially if you've been around someone who was sick with COVID-19," Dunn said. "You should get tested. You should continue to stay home and away from others until you receive the results of your test."

He noted that people who have medical conditions or are taking medications that weaken the immune system should talk to their health care provider to discuss safety precautions.

Beyond Physical Safety

As employers reopen their businesses and lift COVID-19-related safety requirements, they should also take measures to address mental health and well-being.

"It's been a tough 14 months," observed Tony Lee, SHRM's vice president of content. "Obviously a lot of organizations—and employers and employees alike—have all really struggled."

Casey Chosewood, M.D., NIOSH's director of the Office for Total Worker Health, said employers should be doing all they can to maximize the amount of flexibility they're giving workers.

"Supervisors need to sort of let workers have more control and more of a day-to-day role … in the decision making in their own workplace environments. Giving them a greater say in how they do their work is really critical right now," he said. "I think we have an opportunity to shed important light on the challenges that our workers have faced and really give them more assistance and resources to make it through these difficult times."

Dunn noted that NIOSH has developed several tools and guidance documents on returning to the worksite during the pandemic. "As we continue to know more, the CDC will continue to update our recommendations for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people." 

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