US Workplace Safety Agency Issues New COVID-19 Guidance for Employers

By Daniel Wiessner

February 02, 2021

(Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Labor office that enforces workplace safety laws on Friday encouraged employers to take additional steps to protect workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, after unions and Democrats criticized the agency's response under former President Donald Trump.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued non-binding guidance recommending that businesses conduct hazard assessments, adopt policies that do not punish employees who miss work because they may be infected, and ensure that safety measures are communicated to non-English speaking workers.

The week before last, on his second day in office, President Joe Biden ordered OSHA to issue new guidance on workplace safety during the pandemic and to step up enforcement efforts. He also directed OSHA to adopt temporary emergency rules by March 15 if the agency deems it necessary.

During the Trump administration, OSHA resisted calls to adopt rules that would create new legal obligations for employers during the pandemic. Instead, the agency focused on issuing guidance specific to certain industries, such as meatpacking plants and healthcare facilities, which it said was more helpful to businesses and workers.

Many Democrats and worker advocates have also said that OSHA has failed to adequately investigate workers' complaints involving pandemic-related safety issues.

Earlier this month, before Biden took office, OSHA said it had issued about $3.9 million in fines arising from 300 inspections for safety violations related to the pandemic.

OSHA on Friday urged employers to adopt policies protecting workers who raise concerns about safety from retaliation.

The guidance also further details measures that OSHA had already recommended for limiting the spread of COVID-19, such as ensuring infected people are not in the workplace, enforcing physical distancing, and improving ventilation.

OSHA said it will update the guidance "as developments in science, best practices and standards warrant."