Mitigating Risks, Preventing the Spread of COVID-19
By: Barbara Nessinger, Editor-in-Chief, Industrial Hygiene in the Workplace
OSHA recently published guidance intended for employers and workers, in workplace settings outside of healthcare, to help identify risks of being exposed to and/or contracting COVID-19. Also designed to help employers determine appropriate control measures to implement, here is an overview of OSHA’s detailed guidance.
This OSHA guide contains recommendations, as well as descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards. The recommendations are, according to OSHA, “advisory in nature; informational in content; and are intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace.”
Covered in the guidance are what employees need to know about COVID-19; a detailed discussion of face coverings; and the roles of both employers and employees in responding to COVID-19.
What Employees Need to Know about COVID-19
- The best way to protect yourself is to stay far enough away from other people so that you are not breathing in particles produced by an infected person—at least 6ft (about 2 arm lengths)—however, this is not a guarantee, especially in enclosed spaces or those with poor ventilation.
- Practice good personal hygiene and wash your hands often. Always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, or use the inside of your elbow and do not spit. Monitor your health daily and be alert for COVID-19 symptoms.
- Face coverings are simple barriers to help prevent your respiratory droplets or aerosols from reaching others. Not all face coverings are the same; the CDC recommends face coverings be made of at least two layers of a tightly woven breathable fabric, such as cotton, and should not have exhalation valves or vents. The main function of wearing a face covering is to protect those around you, in case you are infected but not showing symptoms. Studies show that face coverings reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth. Although not their primary value, studies also show that face coverings can reduce wearers’ risk of infection in certain circumstances, depending upon the face covering. This means wear a face covering even when there are no symptoms present. Asymptomatic workers can spread the virus to others.
It is especially important to wear a face covering when you are unable to stay at least 6ft apart from others, since COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with one another. But wearing a face covering does not eliminate the need for physical distancing or other control measures (e.g., handwashing). It is also vital to wear a face covering and remain physically distant from co-workers and customers, even if you have been vaccinated, because it is not known at this time how vaccination affects transmissibility.
In addition, there are many employer prevention programs that include important steps to keep workers safe—from telework to flexible schedules to PPE and face coverings. All workers should be aware of such prevention options.
The Roles of Employers & Workers
Under the OSH Act, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace, free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Implementing a workplace COVID-19 prevention program is the most effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at work, according to the OSHA guidance.
This includes a 16-step guideline for minimizing risk, including education and training; establishment of an effective communication system; and consideration of employees who might be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, through established policies and practices.
The new guidance also contains multiple links for in-depth reference for both employers and employees. See the “Additional Resources” section, below, for more.
- “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace,” https://www.osha.gov/coronavirus/safework
- “Scientific Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2,” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html
- CDC’s “People at Increased Risk and Other People Who Need to Take Extra Precautions,” https://tinyurl.com/jwveuss8
- “Implement Physical Distancing in All Communal Work Areas,” https://www.osha.gov/coronavirus/safework#implement-physical-distancing
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