Since the pandemic began, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that it has received over 10,000 complaints from workers concerned about a lack of protections against the coronavirus in the workplace, with more submitted almost every day.
OSHA has, for the most part, tried to hold out on issuing companies COVID-related penalties and fines during this unprecedented time. In mid-April, the agency issued a statement saying it would take employers ‘good faith efforts’ to protect workers into consideration when deciding whether or not to issue citations— but it’s starting to look like the days of lax enforcement might be coming to an end.
Over the past few months, the number of COVID-related investigations, citations, and fines issued for failure to implement health and safety workplace guidelines has started to increase. It’s important to note that each state’s standards will vary, but the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) cited 19 different businesses alone last month, while Oregon conducted more than 5,000 on-site spot check inspections by early August. These may not seem like huge numbers right now, but other states are also starting to work through their backlog of COVID-related complaints filed by employees (most states have received thousands since the beginning of the pandemic), so numbers around the country may even continue to increase through the end of the year.
So what exactly are OSHA’s guidelines regarding COVID in the workplace, and how do you know if your business’s operating procedures might be non-compliant? While we all try our best to get back to business as usual, what steps need to be taken by employers to help ensure that employees are safe and protected at work? We’ve put together a safety guide to help:
What We’ll Cover:
- What are OSHA’s guidelines regarding COVID-19 in the workplace?
- What are the most common COVID-related OSHA violations in 2020 so far?
- Safety solutions and recommendations to keep your workplace compliant and your employees protected
What are OSHA’s Guidelines Regarding COVID-19 in the Workplace?
So far, the Department of Labor has not issued out OSHA-specific standards or guidance for businesses operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the agency has asked that employers work to follow the CDC’s guidelines when it comes to preparing their facilities for on-site employees. This includes things like:
- Increasing cleaning procedures
- Maintaining six feet of social distance between employees and customers
- Providing sufficient amounts of soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- Encouraging workers to wear masks when social distancing isn’t an option
OSHA released its own similar guidance for preparing workplaces for COVID-19 earlier this year, but explains in the first paragraph that “the recommendations are advisory in nature,” and businesses are not technically held to any obligation to follow it, at least as far as OSHA is concerned.
So where does that leave employers? Essentially, any binding standards and on-site enforcement of COVID-related regulations fall to the specific states’ OSHA agencies, local governments, and the employers themselves. There are currently 28 OSHA-approved State Plans; to be deemed approved by OSHA, state plans are required to have standards and enforcement programs that are at least as effective as OSHA’s, but may have different or more stringent requirements.
To reiterate: each state’s guidelines and standards surrounding COVID will vary, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the rules specific to your own state.
What Are the Most Common COVID-Related OSHA Violations in 2020 So Far?
So if OSHA citations are starting to be handed out to employers around the country for non-compliance with COVID workplace safety standards, what are the most common penalties we’re seeing so far? As far as trends go, these are the top 5 violations companies have been fined for:
- Failure to Maintain Social Distancing When Possible
- Failure to Require Face Coverings When Social Distance Could Not Be Maintained
- Lack of a COVID-19 preparedness & response plan
- Failure to implement a daily health screening protocol
- Failure to post signs, markings, and/or barriers at the time clock
Failure to Maintain Social Distancing When Possible
According to OSHA guidelines, medium exposure risk jobs include those that require frequent and/or close contact with others. OSHA recommends that employers protect these workers by reconfiguring workstations and allowing employees to work 6 feet apart if at all possible. Even if social distancing is possible, masks are still recommended, and workers who cannot be spaced out should use respirators.
Following a coronavirus-related inspection, OSHA cited Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for not adhering to social distance guidelines, among other violations. The company received a $13,494 fine (the maximum allowed by law) and was asked to implement proactive measures to protect workers from contracting COVID, including social distancing measures, the use of physical barriers, and mandated face coverings when employees are unable to physically distance at least 6 feet from each other.
How to Avoid OSHA Penalty:
Whenever possible, employers should space out on-site employees to be at least six feet apart. This might include desks and cubicles in an office setting, employee-specific workstations in manufacturing plants or construction sites, or the kitchen/back of house area in restaurants. In-person meetings that require a larger group of people can also be switched to virtual meetings, phone calls, or emails.
To help implement social distancing in the workplace, we recommend utilizing Seton’s highly visible social distance signs & posters for businesses and strong adhesive social distancing floor markers. View a few of our top products below, or check out our guide to social distance for essential businesses for more information.
Failure to Require Face Coverings When Social Distance Could Not Be Maintained
OSHA guidelines specifically request that employers “provide a face mask, if feasible and available, and ask the person to wear it, if tolerated.” Face masks should be worn over both the nose and mouth, and PPE masks worn by workers and employees should not be confused with face masks on patients or sick individuals.
After an inspection initiated due to employee complaints, Belle Tire of Shelby Township, Michigan was fined $7,000 for not requiring employees to wear face coverings at work, among other violations. Again, face mask mandates vary by state. New York, for example, has stricter mask laws than states like Texas and Florida. Refer to this list of COVID face mask orders by state for more information.
How to Avoid OSHA Penalty:
Seton has a few different medical style face masks currently in stock, along with adjustable anti-fog face shields for extra protection. Available in bulk for your convenience, these face coverings can be handed out to employees on a regular basis to encourage usage and help keep your business compliant with OSHA recommendations. They’re also great to keep on hand if an employee accidentally forgets to bring a face mask from home.
Related: Seton Resource Center – PPE 101
COVID-19 Face Mask Signs
Face masks required signs and no entry without a face mask signs can also help enforce and remind employees of your COVID face covering policies before they even step foot into the building. View our top face mask signs for businesses below, or check out our entire selection of COVID-19 safety signage:
ED5286 – Caution Face Masks Required Sign (Bilingual – English/Spanish)
ED6130 – Face Masks Required Beyond This Point Signs
EM5626 – No Entry Without a Face Mask Signs
ED71424 – Wear a Face Mask Construction Site Signs
Lack of a COVID-19 Preparedness & Response Plan
All employers are advised to develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan specifically related to COVID-19, but it’s especially important for businesses bringing back on-site employees. OSHA’s guidelines state that these plans should consider the level of risk associated with various worksites and job tasks workers perform at those sites, including:
- Where, how, and to what sources of COVID-19 might workers be exposed (general public, customers, sick individuals, international travelers, etc.)
- Non-occupational risk factors in the community
- Workers’ individual risk factors (pre-existing medical conditions, age, pregnancy, etc.)
- Controls necessary to address those risks
ABSR, Inc., and Story Roofing Company inc., based in Buckley, Michigan, were fined $4,200 for the lack of a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan, among other violations.
How to Avoid OSHA Penalty
Depending on your state’s specific rules, your coronavirus preparedness and response plan may differ from other businesses located in different states. Addressing the above bullet points is a good starting point, but refer to your state’s official guidelines to ensure that your plan is properly compliant. Some states have even released a preparedness plan template and instructions for guidance.
Failure to Implement a Daily Health Screening Protocol
According to the CDC, screening employees for symptoms of COVID-19 is an optional strategy that employers may use, but it may be required in some OSHA-approved state plans. It’s important to note that performing daily health screenings cannot possibly be 100% effective since people can still be asymptomatic or may not realize they are infected if they have mild symptoms. Daily health screenings should be used in conjunction with other preventative measures like social distancing and use of face coverings when social distancing is not an option.
Following an inspection initiated in response to a complaint, The Home Depot in Dearborn Heights, Michigan was fined $4,000 for failure to maintain/retain documentation for daily health screening, among other violations.
A few ways businesses have adopted daily COVID health screening practices include:
- Requiring workers to fill out virus-screening questionnaires
- Digital “immunity” badges for employees who have developed coronavirus antibodies
- Fever detection and facial recognition thermal camera services
- Requiring employees to call a hotline to answer virus-screening questions
How to Avoid OSHA Penalty
If your business decides to implement a daily COVID health screening procedure to help keep employees safe, refer to the CDC guidelines for healthy business practices, including what questions to ask and what COVID symptoms to focus on.
To help direct traffic and remind employees to complete their required COVID health screenings upon their arrival at work, use Seton’s health screening and temperature monitoring signs, displayed below:
EM422 – STOP Mandatory Temperature Screening Station Signs
ED72723 – STOP Health Screening Required to Enter Signs
ED5290 – Temperature Screening Station Signs
ED72724 – STOP Temperature Monitoring Here Signs
Failure to Post Signs, Markings, and/or Barriers at the Time Clock
When referring to COVID-related signage in the workplace, OSHA guidelines do not get into where signs should exactly be posted (though OSHA-approved state plans may be more strict). The CDC, however, recommends that employers “post signs and reminders at entrances and strategic places listing the signs and symptoms of infection, the importance of handwashing, and how to cover coughs and sneezes.” This should include alternative formats for non-English speakers and populations with disabilities, including signs in braille and larger prints, as needed.
Based in Detroit, Michigan, Fresh Pak was recently fined $4,900 for failing to post signs, markings, and barriers at the time clock, among other COVID-related violations.
How to Avoid OSHA Penalty:
While certain states are starting to ease restrictions surrounding COVID, it’s never a bad idea to remind employees of the potential dangers and symptoms of the infection, as well as handwashing/hygiene best practices to avoid getting sick or contracting the virus at work.
Posting Seton’s COVID signs for businesses in high traffic areas like in the break room, around the time clock, or near entrances/exits can help keep workplace safety top of mind throughout the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic. See below for a few recommendations, or view our entire selection of COVID-19 safety signs. We also have a section on our website specifically for COVID-19 response products for offices and COVID-19 response products for restaurants.
ME4603 – Social Distance Signs – Please Eat at Your Desk or in Your Car
AC6666 – Safety First, Cover Your Cough Signs
AB1232 – Wash or Sanitize Hands Before and After Using Time Clock Signs
ME4599 – Social Distance Signs – No Congregating in Break Room
Dealing with COVID-Related OSHA Violations
As businesses continue to navigate this “new normal,” it’s imperative to keep employee safety top of mind. As a general rule of thumb, OSHA has six months from the first exposure to a hazard to issue a citation, so some employers are not out of the woods just yet because they haven’t heard from OSHA about a violation or inspection performed earlier this year. Be sure to keep communication open and frequent, especially when it comes to information and newly adopted safety procedures.
For more information on OSHA regulations during COVID-19, refer to the COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions page on the official OSHA website, which holds answers to questions like:
- How should I clean and disinfect my workplace?
- Has OSHA waived any requirements of its standards in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How do I report the fatality or in-patient hospitalization of an employee with a confirmed, work-related case of COVID-19?
- What COVID-19 training resources are available for employers?
For more information on how Seton’s safety solutions can be utilized by employers during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond, please view our Back to Work Digital Catalog. To check current stock status and delivery times on products, please reach out to our knowledgeable customer service team at 800-243-6624.