New Efforts to Improve Workplace Safety: Coronavirus Protections Through Legislation

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As the country continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, employers and employees are working through their responses to COVID-19 in real time. Local, state, and federal directives vary widely, leaving much of the workplace safety – coronavirus response to employers to figure out on their own.

OSHA regulations and guidance, along with CDC guidance, provides a broad view of minimum standards; however, some congressional lawmakers seek to clarify and strengthen workplace safety – coronavirus measures through legislative means.

How OSHA’s General Duty Clause Applies to Workplace Safety – Coronavirus
OSHA is the federal agency leading the way in workplace safety, issuing standards and regulations designed to protect workers from illness and injury on the job. Instead of issuing coronavirus-specific regulations or standards, OSHA is currently counting on its General Duty clause to guide employers’ response to the pandemic, along with its recently released Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 booklet, which does not have the effect of any new regulation or standard.

Under the General Duty clause, employers have an obligation to ensure workers are protected from “recognized hazards” at work. This leaves it up to the employer to decide which hazards apply and what protection measures look like.

CDC Guidance on Workplace Safety – Coronavirus
The CDC’s guidance on new workplace safety measures specific to coronavirus focuses on cleaning and disinfecting facilities, as well as tips for employees working in grocery stores and meat/poultry processing plants in particular, two places where it’s especially difficult to maintain 6’ distance between people.

The CDC also recommends workplaces develop and roll out COVID-19 assessment and response plans. Unless OSHA declares any CDC guidance to businesses mandatory, there’s virtually no oversight or enforcement to push employers to follow any of it.

The Push for Workplace Safety – Coronavirus Legislation
This is where Democratic lawmakers in Congress have decided to step in, and where Republican lawmakers may be seeking concessions in response.

Some legislators don’t think that the General Duty clause protects workers from COVID-19 in a meaningful way. House bill (H.R. 6559) calls for OSHA to establish an Emergency Temporary Standard. This standard would take effect seven days after the bill passes, and it would require employers to take certain protections for the purpose of protecting workers from contracting COVID-19 at work.

The bill leaves it to OSHA to decide what those protections are. In exchange, some Republican legislators may seek to shield employers from liability in some cases.

What Businesses Can Do Now
As legislation works its way through the House of Representatives, with the potential to go before the Senate before becoming law, employers must still contend with modifying operations if and when needed as business conditions change in response to coronavirus.

Using OSHA and CDC guidance as a framework, in conjunction with local, state, and federal laws, orders, and directives, employers can develop workplace safety – coronavirus measures themselves.

These workplace safety policies and procedures can help companies prepare for employee illnesses, interruptions to logistics and supply chains, and economic hardships as revenues fluctuate. A workplace safety – coronavirus policy and procedure can help employers navigate corner cases while giving employees confidence to continue working or return to work and concentrate on their job instead of getting sick, while also giving consumers the confidence to shop safely.

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