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Industry-Specific Risks Associated with COVID-19 and OSHA's Guidelines for Safety

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A fall webinar hosted by SWANA focused on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines around COVID-19, specific to the solid waste industry, in areas including social distancing, best sanitization practices, and monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms.

Employers also got insight around legislation to help avoid legal issues during the pandemic. The speakers were John Gustafson and Manesh K. Rath, both of Keller and Heckman.

First, Rath explained OSHA’s rulemaking process whereby employers must be notified of proposed rules and given the opportunity to comment before they are finalized.  But the agency may issue interpretive guidance that does not require notice and a comment period in order to disseminate information faster; and this has been the case around COVID-19 control and prevention. So, Gustafson and Rath enlightened participants on clear rules and guidelines that have been established, as well as on potential gray areas for solid waste operations.

With regard to industry-specific risk associated with COVID-19, OSHA classifies most jobs as having no more than medium exposure risk; many are considered low risk, such as handling of most recyclable materials. Though a few tasks, such as shredding, which may aerosolize particulate that contains the coronavirus, are associated with higher risk.  

“So, if you have shredding, pay attention to the aerosolization that could ensue,” said Rath who also provided the broader advice of encouraging employers to look at OSHA guidance.

The industry has a leg up on some other types of operations in readiness to mitigate the risks posed by the pandemic because many of its workplace practices already incorporate safety protocol considered adequate to serve as COVID-19 protection measures, particularly around the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Workers engaged in collection or sorting are already wearing puncture-resistant gloves and many wear face and eye protection that may be of greater protective value than simple face coverings.

Rath’s main takeaway on this area of focus: “It’s important to consider what PPE methods you already have in place and which still make sense in the context of COVID-19 protection measures.”

Employers should continue to require normal PPE but COVID-19- specific PPE should also be used where possible as an abatement measure and includes PPE that minimizes contact with surfaces that could be a resting place for SARS-CoV-2  virus particles.

With regard to social distancing, there should be six feet between employees and between workstations. And physical barriers should be used to separate workers if necessary, says Gustafson adding “we have seen a lot of office rearrangements to accommodate this.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which OSHA guidance incorporates, state that where social distancing is not achievable PPE should be used and include more than face covers; employees in close proximity for extended periods should have barriers between them. Specifically, in trucks, if there are two workers, some entities are putting barriers between the passenger and driver seats.

Ventilation in buildings is a key part of social distancing, especially considering almost all outbreaks to date are associated with prolonged indoor exposures, said Rath. So, he said, “Make sure fresh air comes in from multiple locations when indoors. And air should blow from the center out rather than across, where achievable, so you are exhausting indoor air rather than bringing it in.”

Rath and Gustafson broached the question: Can employers make medical inquiries of their staff?

The answer in short: it’s permissible to ask medical questions specific to COVID-19 symptoms. There are acknowledged symptoms that CDC associates with the illness, which include shortness of breath, fatigue, elevated temperature, body aches, cough, sudden loss of taste or smell, and headaches.

Asking about these symptoms is considered appropriate, and deemed permissible, as part of a screening protocol, and in fact is considered a good measure to improve workplace safety, said Rath.

“Overtime you should see a reduction in cases at the worksite if you do this screening along with other practices [like sanitizing, social distancing, and requiring use of PPE],” he said.

Employers can also do daily health checks; take workers’ temperature; and conduct coronavirus tests. Though Rash advises that if employees are asked about symptoms, they may not always answer honestly in order to avoid being sent home without pay, or conversely, to be sent home with pay.

But, he said, “Overall productivity and ROI will be greater by sending home those with symptoms and preserving the health of the remaining workforce.”

Another question addressed was, when is it safe to bring employees back to work who had been symptomatic or had a confirmed case of COVID-19? CDC advises that employees who test positive or who are symptomatic should be permitted to return after 72 hours with no symptoms including no fever without fever-reducing medications; if respiratory symptoms they may have had are improved and it’s been seven days since onset of symptoms.

A suggested option if workers test positive is for them to return once they have two consecutive negative tests at least 24 hours apart.

Gustafson spoke of guidance issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on sanitizers and disinfectants to target SARS-CoV-2 and referenced an EPA list of disinfectants that is searchable on the internet. With regard to disinfectants, if employers can’t find EPA-approved disinfectants they can use bleach and water or a product with a minimum of 70% isopropyl alcohol to disinfect nonporous surfaces, said Gustafson. Sanitizers should be at least 60% isopropyl alcohol.

Attendees heard of a provision in OSHA legislation around “general duty,” which specifies that every employer has a general duty to ensure the workplace is free of generally recognized hazards. If there is an incident related to a generally recognized hazard, where there is also a recognized method to abate that hazard, an employer could be cited by OSHA, even in lieu of a specific standard in that scenario.

At the federal level OSHA has stated if employers act in good faith to manage coronavirus risk then it is not intent on enforcement to increase workplace safety. Rather the agency is more interested in coaching and counseling, inspection letters, and guidance to achieve a higher degree of safety with respect to coronavirus more quickly.

“With that said, know that the concept has been brought under great scrutiny by Congress, unions, and Public Citizens [a watchdog group] who believe OSHA practices are not stringent enough,” said Rath. He warned that, in response to pressure, there is potential for the agency to issue enforcement actions against employers tied to coronavirus control practices, and it’s possible the general duty clause could be used to take such action.

In closing, he said that what he considers especially important advice for employers is for them to have a written coronavirus response plan, starting with a risk assessment and moving on to training, monitoring and enforcement. The plan should cover areas such as PPE, disinfection, leave, social distancing and working remotely. 

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