As the Delta variant upends employers' return-to-office plans, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued updated guidance concerning the mitigation and prevention of COVID-19 in the workplace. In a previous alert, we detailed the emergency temporary standard (ETS) for healthcare workers and OSHA's non-mandatory expectations for non-healthcare workers. This updated guidance for non-healthcare workers from OSHA reflects the new recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on July 27. As circumstances continue to change, employers should review their current COVID-19 prevention procedures.
In response to the rise of the Delta variant, which the CDC has determined is more transmissible than earlier variants, the CDC is now recommending that everyone wear masks in public indoors settings in areas of substantial or high transmission of COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status. That recommendation reflects a change from May, when the CDC announced that vaccinated people no longer needed masks in most public settings. OSHA's guidance echoes that recommendation, and further suggests that vaccinated people with known exposure to COVID-19 should wear masks until they receive a negative test 3-5 days after such exposure.
OSHA's new guidance also takes its strongest stance to date on employee vaccination, noting in its press release that vaccination is "the optimal step" in the protection of workers. The guidance includes stronger language highlighting the benefits of vaccination, and suggests that employers adopt mandatory vaccination or routine testing policies. The guidance also recommends that employers provide paid time off for vaccination and recovery from any side effects of vaccination and consider providing on-site vaccination clinics. The guidance does not, however, require employers to adopt mandatory vaccination policies.
OSHA places a renewed focus in this guidance on having "multiple layers of controls" against the spread of COVID-19, including mask wearing, physical barriers, physical distancing, and increased ventilation. OSHA suggests that employers should provide access to free masks or face coverings and should educate and train employees on COVID-19 mitigation procedures.
The new guidance also includes recommendations for unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers in "higher-risk workplaces," including manufacturing; meat, poultry, and seafood processing; high-volume retail and grocery; and agricultural processing. These additional recommendations include stronger language regarding mask wearing, physical distancing, and building ventilation.
The new guidance does not change any of the requirements for healthcare employees separately outlined in the ETS.
Overall, this new guidance is full of minor, incremental changes that help align it with the CDC's new recommendations. We will continue to monitor any workplace guidance as the vaccination effort continues and the situation with the Delta variant unfolds. Employers should be reviewing their workplace safety policies often to ensure a safe environment for their workers and compliance with federal, state, and local guidelines. Any employer with questions related to workplace safety, mandatory vaccine policies, or return-to-work plans should feel free to contact the authors of this article or any other member of Venable's Labor and Employment Group.