OSHA Requires Employers to Provide Safe Workplaces – What Does That Mean Now?
The Case At Hand:
I had a discussion with a peer of mine a few days ago, regarding what we see workplaces doing in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, to either continue essential operations or to plan for the resumption of work. She happens to work in the safety and security management of nursing homes and other services such as for drug and alcohol addiction treatment and counseling. We’ve both had many discussions with people from a variety of industries (healthcare, manufacturing, construction) as they try to figure out how to move forward in this “new normal” set of circumstances.
We see that companies want to both fulfill their business goals and keep their people safe.
But, these can be confusing times. OSHA expects employers to provide their employees with a safe place to work. What does that mean now, considering COVID-19 issues and implications? OSHA’s requirements apply not only to physical injuries caused in the workplace but also to occupational illnesses. When people think of work-related illnesses, they often think of those that can be caused by exposures to things like lead, silica, and asbestos. However, they can also stem from exposures to infectious materials in the workplace. The COVID-19 situation is abruptly reminding us of that.
There are many variables that can go into providing the “safe workplace” that may need to be rethought now. That can include workplace configuration, workflow and processes, the nature of the workforce (e.g. does everyone have 30 years’ tenure or is there a high use of temp workers and high turnover), ventilation systems, training, sanitization of areas and surfaces, determining appropriate procedures for minimizing the risk of exposure, the determination of appropriate personal protective equipment and providing it, processes for managing cases of symptomatic workers, and determining who can and should continue to work from home versus a return to a brick and mortar establishment.
In the middle of a global pandemic, OSHA’s ability to respond to issues in real-time has got to be stretched thin. OSHA regulations continue to apply. Fundamentally, however, it always was and still is up to the employer to determine and do what is right. Our motivation for doing the right things shouldn’t need to be based upon potential OSHA visits, but rather stem from knowing that doing the right things in the right way is not only good for our workers but also results in optimizing our processes and profits. It seems more obvious than ever how important our workers are and in how many ways they can contribute to the business.
The good news is that OSHA has prepared guidance documents pertaining to working in the COVID-19 environment, and these are available at the OSHA.gov website. Right now, this is the “highlight topic” on the OSHA.gov web page. Some of the information was also developed jointly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This includes information prepared for specific work environments (industries), like manufacturing and meatpacking. There is some especially useful information there on many of the issues you may have questions about; it might be broader than you'd expect. Also, there are many documents available directly through CDC at CDC.gov/coronavirus, and through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at CDC.gov/niosh. NIOSH and others are developing toolkits and restart related information that will be and/or “is” specific to industry type. Several safety and health associations such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), and the National Safety Council (NSC) have good and ever-increasing resources that employers can and should review to assist their operations. These organizations are solid and present information based on science. There are also many other efforts underway that also will result in good information, including through the joint efforts of trade associations, governmental agencies, and other interested parties.
Thinking Beyond the Pandemic:
Keep in mind that resources like those mentioned above, are tools that should be one part of a company’s arsenal toward the goal of providing a safe workplace. Really, using tools from these resources should be just one part of an overall approach for providing a safe workplace that also supports the overall business system. Whether you have an acknowledged system or not – the reality is that employers have either a formal or an informal system in place, and a particular culture, for better or for worse.
We should focus on the “for better” part. Our success is, just as much as ever, influenced by our knowledge and use of the interrelated systems we have in place.
It is a good time to re-think your organization’s approach to how it manages health and safety processes. As the saying goes, “everything is related to everything else.” Businesses should operate in an integrated manner to achieve the greatest success. We need to understand how different parts of the business, even if not immediately obvious, can all play a role in affecting our safety results. Accounting for forces and factors that can impact our goals will result in the best planning, help avoid future business interruptions, and maximize profits. Do you know what your options are?
This might not be easy, there are many factors to consider. There are new obstacles and never-before-faced limitations.
Sixth Sense Safety Solutions can help you work through these issues, and has experience working in a variety of industries. We understand factors that can impact your success. With over 35 years of experience, we stay current with the best available information and approaches. Contact Sixth Sense Safety Solutions using the contact links on this website to schedule a free discussion of ways that we can provide you with tailored assistance.