Following federal OSHA’s decision to limit its COVID-19 emergency temporary standard to the healthcare industry, workers and employers in other industries were left wondering what that meant for them. What steps would employers need to continue taking to keep workers safe? How would workplace guidance shift in light of the CDC’s guidance that fully vaccinated people could resume most activities without wearing a face covering, physically distancing or following other COVID-19 prevention practices?
New guidance from OSHA addresses these questions and provides some insight into how the agency will handle COVID-19 in non-healthcare industries moving forward.
Major Shift from Previous OSHA Guidance
The biggest change in the new OSHA guidance is an emphasis on protecting unvaccinated workers. Whereas previous guidance focused on workplace controls such as face coverings, social distancing and screening procedures for all workers, the revised guidance distinguishes between steps that need to be taken for vaccinated and unvaccinated workers.
The revised guidance notes that “unless otherwise required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their fully vaccinated workers who are not otherwise at-risk from COVID-19 exposure.”
“Encouraging workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is one of the most important steps employers can take to reduce exposures in the workplace and protect others in our communities,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “COVID-19 is a known hazard, and the vaccines are the most effective tool we have to protect the health and safety of workers.”
The focus on vaccination shouldn’t be surprising. Data shows that the COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. are highly effective at preventing severe COVID-19 symptoms, hospitalization and death if people do get the virus. The new OSHA guidance calls vaccination “the key in the multi-layered approach to protect workers” and encourages employers to take steps to make it easier for workers to get vaccinated.
In recognizing and incorporating the CDC’s revised guidance for fully vaccinated people, OSHA’s focus has shifted to helping employers identify COVID-19 exposure risks for unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers and helping employers take steps to prevent exposure and infection.
Protect Unvaccinated Workers and Promoting Vaccination
Currently, around 56 percent of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In construction and most other industries, it’s a reality that most employers will have a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated workers, at least for the foreseeable future. So how can construction employers continue to protect unvaccinated workers on the job?
- First, encourage employees to get vaccinated by sharing information about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. Support vaccination by granting paid time off for workers to get vaccinated or consider adopting other vaccine incentives.
- Instruct workers to stay home if they test positive for COVID-19, are unvaccinated and have close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or are unvaccinated and have COVID-19 symptoms.
- Maintain physical distancing policies in all communal work areas for unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers.
- Provide unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers with face coverings or surgical masks, unless their work task requires a respirator or other more protective form of PPE.
- Educate and train workers on the company’s COVID-19 policies and procedures in a format and language workers understand.
- Suggest that unvaccinated vendors, clients, visitors or guests wear face coverings on site.
- Maintain ventilation systems in accordance with manufacturer instructions.
- Continue to perform routine cleaning and disinfection.
- Record and report COVID-19 infections and deaths.
- Implement protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns about COVID-19 related hazards.
The availability of COVID-19 vaccines has not completely eliminated the hazard in our daily lives, and the same holds true for construction jobsites. Employers still need to take steps to protect workers who are at risk, just as they do for other known hazards. This updated guidance gives employers yet another reason to encourage their entire workforce to get fully vaccinated, and to provide support and incentives to achieve that goal.