OSHA Provides Inspection Guidelines on COVID-19 Health Care Safety Rule

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People walking around hospital wearing masks

Health care employers that are covered by a federal COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) should ensure that their workplace pandemic plan is ready for review, according to recently issued inspection guidelines and enforcement policies.

"All COVID-19-related inspections should include a review of the employer's COVID-19 plan and related documents and interviews with employers and employees," state new guidelines for inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The health care ETS focuses on settings where coronavirus patients are treated, including hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The standard directs covered facilities to conduct a hazard assessment and have a plan to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The ETS also requires health care employers to provide some employees with N95 respirators or other personal protective equipment; ensure 6 feet of distance between workers; and, in certain situations, erect barriers between employees. Covered employers also must provide workers with paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from side effects. 

We've gathered articles on the emergency temporary standard from SHRM Online and other trusted sources.

ETS Applies Only to Health Care Industry

On June 10, OSHA announced the long-anticipated ETS, which applies only to certain health care employers. Most requirements in the ETS took effect on July 6, but certain obligations involving physical barriers, ventilation and training must be implemented by July 21. The standard aims to "protect health care and health care support service workers from occupational exposure to COVID-19 in settings where people with COVID-19 are reasonably expected to be present," according to OSHA. "During the period of the emergency standard, covered health care employers must develop and implement a COVID-19 plan to identify and control COVID-19 hazards in the workplace." Covered employers must also implement other measures to reduce workplace transmission of COVID-19, such as patient screening, increased cleaning and ensuring the use of personal protective equipment.

(SHRM Online)

[SHRM Resource Hub Page: Coronavirus and COVID-19]

Exceptions to Coverage

OSHA's guidelines note that "where a health care setting is embedded within a non-health care setting," such as a medical clinic in a manufacturing facility or a walk-in clinic in a retail setting, the ETS "applies only to the embedded health care setting and not to the remainder of the physical location." OSHA also issued a flowchart to illustrate when a workplace is covered by the ETS.   

(Occupational Safety and Health Administration)

The COVID-19 Plan

Covered facilities must have a COVID-19 plan, and that plan needs to be in writing if the employer has more than 10 employees. Employers must conduct a workplace-specific hazard assessment, monitor and limit entryways in areas where direct patient care is provided, and roll out policies and procedures to limit coronavirus transmission.

"If the employer has multiple facilities with substantially similar operations, its COVID-19 plan may be developed by facility type rather than by individual workplace so long as all required site-specific information is included in the plan," according to OSHA's directive. "Employers may also develop a single comprehensive plan in instances where employees are performing the same task(s) at different facilities as long as any required site-specific information is included."

(Safety and Health Magazine)

Designated Safety Coordinator

A covered facility's plan must designate a safety coordinator with the "authority to ensure compliance." OSHA's directive states that the inspector "should interview the COVID-19 safety coordinator(s) regarding their professional knowledge and background in infection control principles and practices applied to the workplace and employee job operations. This facilitates in determining if they are qualified through training, education, work experience or a combination thereof."

The directive notes that the opening conference at the start of an inspection should include a conversation between inspectors and the facility's safety director, infection control director and COVID-19 safety coordinator. The inspector may also speak with employees' union representatives.

(Bloomberg Law)

What to Expect in an OSHA Inspection 

Any OSHA inspection consists of three parts, beginning with a conference with the employer, a walk around the site and a closing conference with the employer. At the opening conference, the OSHA inspector explains the reason for the inspection, its scope, procedures for a walk-through of the site, and the need for employee representation and worker interviews during the inspection. The employer will be asked to select an employee representative to accompany the inspector. The OSHA inspector also will talk privately with individual workers; questions asked may include whether the employer provides personal protective equipment and if it provides training. 

The closing conference is with the employer and designated representatives to discuss the findings, suggestions for corrective procedures and reasonable timelines for making any changes. The compliance officer then sends a report to the area OSHA director, who determines whether to issue a citation to the employer. If a citation is issued, the employer has 15 days to take action, which can include contesting the citation.

(SHRM Online)

General Guidance for Most Workplaces

In addition to issuing the ETS, OSHA recently provided nonbinding guidance for other employers. Most employers that are not covered by the ETS or involved with public transportation "no longer need to take steps to protect their fully vaccinated workers who are not otherwise at-risk from COVID-19 exposure," except when measures are "required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations," according to OSHA. "Fully vaccinated" means two weeks have passed since the employee received the final dose of a vaccine authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Employers need to continue taking steps to protect unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers who may have a weakened response to the vaccine.

(SHRM Online)

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

Separate Policies Based on Vaccination Status

Federal, state and local COVID-19 workplace safety guidelines distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. While businesses can create policies with different mask and social distancing rules based on inoculation status, attorneys say they should tread carefully. "From a safety perspective, there is really no problem differentiating between vaccinated and unvaccinated," said Todd Logsdon, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Louisville, Ky. For issues outside of OSHA's jurisdiction, however, the biggest concern would be the need to provide reasonable accommodations for disability-related or religious reasons. He noted that employers may want to consider employee morale issues, too.

(SHRM Online)

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