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California’s COVID-19 Standard Offer Clues for a National One

Toby Graham /

It’s been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic uprooted all of our lives and forced us to look at workplace safety in a much different light. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has been working overtime to ensure companies comply with new standards and guidance to combat the virus’s spread.

However, as science uncovers new information regarding the virus and its spread, new OSHA standards are created to keep up. Add to that local and federal mandates regarding masks and PPE, and some local businesses have struggled to keep pace with these new regulations.

In January, California enacted Assembly Bill 685, an emergency order that increases the authority of Cal/OSHA to enforce citations and shut down worksites as needed. The bill also requires employers to notify their employees and local public health agencies of potential COVID-19 outbreaks.

A California Safety Consultant’s Take

Joe Souza, KPA’s District Manager based in California, recently sat down with us to explain how increased OSHA COVID-19 enforcement has affected businesses he works with.

“Looking at the difference between enacting emergency standard vs. the time before…there was quite a bit of disorganization in facilities. Companies were unsure what they needed to do, the right thing to do, and the process to get there. The emergency standard laid that out very well. AB685 has been a great tool to express gravity and importance that clients should be putting into providing a safe environment for workers and customers.”

Joe breaks down the difference between the current order—which is currently in effect in California from January 1st, 2021 through January 1st, 2023—and the previous OSHA standards of enforcement.

“Typically, if OSHA were going to cite, they’d send the employer a letter and give companies 15 days to respond. If the response was adequate, they wouldn’t give a serious citation. With the new order, OSHA can give serious citations without a 15-day notice. They can also shut down part of or a whole facility based on a COIVD-related issue. And really, almost every COVID issue could be considered an imminent danger. If an employee isn’t wearing masks, the business has no controls in place, etc., that could be a danger to multiple people. So OSHA can now shut them down for that.”

Employees Taking COVID-19 Matters Into Their Own Hands

In response to the new standard, Joe has seen employees taking matters into their own hands. Bypassing their employers, more and more employees are reporting COVID-related violations directly to OSHA.

“Employees now understand the gravity of where we are with COVID. In some cases, they’re the ones driving enforcement at these facilities. Some enforcement has come with fines and citations. But, even in those situations, we still have a conversation with OSHA. If an employer is trying to do the right thing, OSHA tends to be consultative. They’re not playing hardball at this point.”

Conflicting Guidance

Joe also shared how the new standard addresses the challenges employers and safety consultants have struggled with since the start of the pandemic.

“Sometimes we had the state requirements, but then we had a lot of county or local requirements that were more strict, or in some cases less strict. That caused a lot of confusion with employers. With the 2021 emergency standard, we can now approach things from a state level to give guidance to all employers.”

In the end, it all comes down to proper training and education. Joe believes, despite opposition from employers and business owners, that familiarizing yourself with the right tools and resources is a necessity. And not only when it comes to avoiding fines and citations.

“I think the challenge with employers who feel the standard is unfeasible is they don’t have enough good guidance or understanding. Or, maybe they’re not buying into it as a whole. But when it’s explained to them and they’re getting support from a company like KPA, it’s easier to put together a game plan that works. It’s like getting your taxes done. It’s easier when you go to a professional.”

If nothing else, Joe is seeing more and more companies getting on board with safety standards and protocols.

“For me as a consultant, I was out in the field yesterday. I see more mask-wearing and more changes in the community. I think it’s very visible in terms of changes.”

Protect your business, employees, and reputation with KPA’s COVID-19 Safety Program.

Our team of certified safety consultants are here to help put your mind at ease. They are available to conduct in-person risk mitigation audits to help you and your safety team as you address COVID-19 in your daily operations. We can help you identify hazards and control methods, provide an in-depth assessment of potential safety and environmental risks, and deliver recommendations for any areas that need improvement to comply with applicable federal, state, and local regulations. Learn more >>

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