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The 6 OSHA Standards that Apply to COVID-19

Toby Graham /

No one could have predicted COVID-19—not even the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But that hasn’t stopped OSHA from being OSHA. The federal agency in charge of worker health and safety is still taking employers to task for not adequately protecting their workforces during the pandemic.

Although there’s no specific rule about the coronavirus under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, many existing regulations apply to our current crisis. For instance, the general duty clause requires every employer to ensure their workplace is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” COVID-19 definitely counts as a “recognized hazard.”

And that’s just the basic catch-all rule. Many other statutes obligate employers to do certain things in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent publication from OSHA offering guidance on returning to work:

“All of OSHA’s standards that apply to protecting workers from infection remain in place as employers and workers return to work.

While covered employers are always responsible for complying with all applicable OSHA requirements, the agency’s standards for PPE (29 CFR 1910.132), respiratory protection (29 CFR 1910.134), and sanitation (29 CFR 1910.141) may be especially relevant for preventing the spread of COVID-19.”

To help employers protect their workers and stay out of trouble, OSHA has outlined 6 standards that apply to the coronavirus, calling out particularly relevant sections. We’ve gone through this guidance so you don’t have to, and laid everything out in this article.

A few caveats before we dive in:

  • This list is not exhaustive. Per OSHA, “other parts of these standards and additional standards” may apply.
  • Organizations should seek industry-specific guidance. OSHA recommends that “construction, shipyard employment, and longshoring and marine terminals” consult additional resources.
  • Non-federal regulations also apply. Continue to monitor your state, local, tribal, and/or territorial laws and recommendations in addition to federal guidance.

With that in mind, here’s an overview of what you need to know about OSHA’s priorities—and some of your most critical health and safety concerns—during the COVID-19 crisis.

1. Personal Protective Equipment: General Requirements

In brief: OSHA requires you to understand and follow certain PPE standards. Workers should wear the right PPE for whatever hazards or potential hazards they face. You should assess your workplace for hazards to determine what PPE is necessary. Workers should be trained on PPE use—including how to put on and take off PPE—upon hire and periodically thereafter. Everything needs to be documented.

The specific standards:

What the standards cover:

  • PPE application
  • Hazard assessment and equipment selection
  • Training

When the standards apply:

  • In the event of potential or actual COVID-19 exposure
  • In the event of potential or actual exposure to chemical hazards (such as exposure to toxic cleaning and disinfection products)
  • When creating, implementing, and evaluating your PPE controls
  • During hazard/exposure assessments (note: this is a general requirement)
  • When documenting a hazard/exposure assessment (written requirement)
  • When developing and implementing your COVID-19 health and safety program for reopening (AKA your “implementation program”) (general requirement)
  • When documenting your implementation program (written requirement)
  • When training your workers (general requirement)
  • During new hire training
  • During periodic training
  • Whenever training covers the use of PPE

2. Personal Protective Equipment: Respiratory Protection

In brief: OSHA requires you to understand and follow respiratory protection standards. You should have a written respiratory protection program in place. You need to evaluate respiratory hazards in your workplace and provide your workers with the right respiratory equipment for those hazards. Keep in mind that different respirators suit different hazards and contexts; only certain respiratory devices can adequately protect people from hazards that are immediately dangerous to life or health (“IDLH” for short). All respirators need to be tested to ensure the correct fit. You should have procedures in place to ensure respirators remain operable, safe, and effective at all times. Workers should be trained on respirator use upon hire, and undergo periodic refresher training at least once a year. You must also conduct evaluations of your workplace to make sure that workers are following procedures and are wearing respirators correctly.

The specific standards:

What the standards cover:

  • Permissible respiratory protection practices
  • Respiratory protection programs
  • Selection of respirators
  • Fit testing
  • Training
  • Program evaluation

When the standards apply:

  • In the event of potential or actual COVID-19 exposure
  • In the event of potential or actual exposure to chemical hazards (such as exposure to toxic cleaning and disinfection products)
  • When creating, implementing, and evaluating your engineering controls
  • When creating, implementing, and evaluating your PPE controls
  • When developing and following through on your implementation program (general requirement)
  • When workers are involved in your implementation program
  • When documenting your implementation program (written requirement)
  • When training your workers (general requirement)
  • When providing training in different languages and formats
  • Whenever training covers the use of PPE

3. General Environmental Controls: Sanitation

In brief: OSHA expects you to keep your workplace as clean, dry, and unobstructed as possible. Your restrooms and showers should be kept sanitary.

The specific standards:

What the standards cover:

  • Housekeeping
  • Washing facilities

When the standards apply:

  • During general cleaning
  • In respect to any handwashing facilities with soap and running water

4. Toxic and Hazardous Substances: Hazard Communication

In brief: OSHA requires all chemical manufacturers and importers to classify chemical hazards. You must understand this information and communicate the dangers to workers in multiple ways, including a written hazard communication program, chemical labels, safety data sheets, and hazard communication training—among other means. Workers should know which hazardous substances are present in the workplace, what dangers specific substances pose, and how to protect themselves from chemical hazards.

The specific standards:

What the standards cover:

  • The scope and application of the hazard communication standard
  • Hazard classification
  • Written hazard communication programs
  • Labels and other forms of warning
  • Employee information and training

When the standards apply:

  • In the event of potential or actual exposure to chemical hazards (such as exposure to toxic cleaning and disinfection products)
  • During hazard/exposure assessments (general requirement)
  • When documenting a hazard/exposure assessment (written requirement)
  • When implementing your COVID-19 health and safety program for reopening (AKA your “implementation program”)
  • When developing and implementing your implementation program (general requirement)
  • When documenting your implementation program (written requirement)
  • When introducing and evaluating administrative controls and safe work practices
  • When training your workers (general requirement)
  • During new hire training
  • During periodic training
  • Whenever training covers the use of PPE

5. Toxic and Hazardous Substances: Access to Employee Exposure and Medical Records

In brief: OSHA requires you to provide workers and/or their designated representatives with all relevant medical paperwork in the event of exposure to a toxic chemical or other harmful “physical agent.” You should understand the federal definition of “toxic substance or harmful physical agent,” which encompasses not only chemicals and biological agents (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.), but also physical stress such as noise, extreme temperatures, vibration, repetitive motion, ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, and hypo- or hyperbaric pressure.

The specific standards:

What the standards cover:

  • The scope and application of the law
  • The meaning of “toxic substance or harmful physical agent”

When the standards apply:

  • In the event of potential or actual COVID-19 exposure
  • In the event of potential or actual exposure to chemical hazards (such as exposure to toxic cleaning and disinfection products)

6. Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries & Illnesses

In brief: OSHA requires you to follow certain procedures when recording and reporting injuries and illnesses workers suffer while on the job. You should understand what your recordkeeping requirements entail, as well as which injuries and illnesses are (and aren’t) recordable. Employees must be involved in these procedures in several ways.

The specific standards:

What the standards cover:

  • Basic recordkeeping requirements
  • Implementation of an illness and injury recordkeeping system
  • Employee involvement in the system

When the standards apply:

  • In the event of potential or actual COVID-19 exposure
  • In the event of potential or actual exposure to chemical hazards (such as exposure to toxic cleaning and disinfection products)
  • When workers are involved in your implementation program

Looking for more safety, health, and regulatory guidance? Check out KPA’s free Coronavirus Resource Center.

Need help with your COVID-19 prevention program? We’ll make it easy for you. Contact us.

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