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Coronavirus and the Workplace

Part I: Safety

March 3, 2020

Obligations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) governs the health and safety of workers and workplace. Under Section 5(a)(1), employers have a general duty to provide a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harms to the employees. Accordingly, in a pandemic, an employer can violate OSHA if it subjects the workers to exposure to the pandemic virus or fails to take adequate measures to reduce the exposure and spread of the pandemic virus present in the workplace. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“the Administration”) has acknowledged the risk of COVID-19 exposure in the workplace by issuing guidance on COVID-19. The guidance is expected to change in light of the changing circumstances surrounding the spread of COVID-19 internationally and in the U.S. To date, the Administration nonetheless maintains that risks of infection for most U.S. workers are not significant, but that the exposure risk is elevated for those involved in healthcare, deathcare, airline operations, waste management, and business travel to areas where the virus is spreading.

No specific OSHA standards or regulations specifically concerning pandemics currently  exist. However, certain OSHA standards may be applicable and impose obligations on employers to protect workers from COVID-19. Some standards, such as those for personal protective equipment ("PPE," 29 C.F.R. §1910.132) and respiratory protection (29 C.F.R. § 1910.134), may require employers to assess the potential hazards of COVID-19 in the workplace. In their assessments, employers should:

Other standards, such as OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens standard (29 C.F.R. 1910.1030), can offer a helpful framework to control some sources of the virus, including exposures to body fluids. Additionally, in a pandemic, employers may have obligations under applicable OSHA general industry standards, for instance, those concerning recording and reporting occupational injuries and illnesses (29 C.F.R. Part 1904), sanitation (29 C.F.R. § 1910.141), access to employee exposure and medical records (29 C.F.R. § 1910.1020), hazard communication (29 C.F.R. —1910.1200), and occupational exposure to hazardous chemical in laboratories (29 C.F.R. § 1910.1450). And, pursuant to OSHA Section 11(c), employers may not retaliate against workers for raising concerns about safety and health conditions, including occupational exposure to COVID-19.

The Administration has also developed interim guidance for control and prevention of COVID-19, which advises employers to:

Recommendation for Employers from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Employers should also consult the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”)’s recent interim guidance for businesses to plan and respond to COVID-19. According to the CDC, employers are recommended to implement the following strategies:

Employers are also advised to plan and be prepared to respond to COVID-19. In designing and implementing an infectious disease outbreak response plan, employers should:

CDC also has additional guidance for business travel, airline workers, health care professionals, and laboratories.

This is the first of a four-part series. Please find parts 2, 3 and 4 here:

Part II: Non-Discrimination

Part III: Leave

Part IV: Pay

This information is based on the facts and guidance available at the time of publication, and may be subject to change.