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New COVID-19 Guidance and 2021 Workplace Safety Efforts

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As employers continue to navigate increased workplace safety measures following the rapid spread of COVID-19, the U.S. Department of Labor has released additional guidance to aid in 2021 efforts.

OSHA’s recommendations, which were published on Friday, Jan. 29, aim to strengthen existing illness prevention programs to reduce transmission of coronavirus.

Jim Frederick, whom President Biden appointed to head the agency on January 21, stressed the implementation of an illness prevention program as the “most effective” model to protect workers.

He explained that “the most effective programs that engage workers and their representatives in their development include the following key elements: conducting a hazard assessment, identifying a combination of measures that will limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, adopting measures to ensure that workers who are potentially contagious are excluded from the workplace, implementing protections from retaliation for workers who raise COVID-related concerns and informing workers of COVID-19 policies and procedures in a language that they understand.”

The guidance recommends employers:

  • Conduct a hazard assessment;
  • Identify control measures to limit the spread of the virus, including physical distancing, surgical masks and face coverings;
  • Adopt policies for employee absences that don’t punish workers as a way to encourage potentially infected workers to remain home;
  • Ensure that coronavirus policies and procedures are communicated to both English and non-English speaking workers; and
  • Implement whistleblower and retaliation protections for workers who raise safety concerns.

While previous guidance under the Trump administration functioned under a pyramid of risks, the new direction is that all workers should be equally protected.

“Not that some workers should be more protected than others, it’s perhaps most importantly, cause for involving workers in every process of developing your COVID prevention plan and implementing that plan,” said Ann Rosenthal, OSHA senior advisor. “Because workers are the people who can best help with the hazard assessment. Workers are the people who know what they're exposed to and can help develop ways that will help them ameliorate that exposure and still allow them to do their jobs.”

Although there may be changes for other industries, the solid waste and recycling industry already has been on top of the game, according to NWRA and SWANA.

“In talking with a number of our members, we're already doing most if not all of it,” said Kirk Sander, NWRA’s VP of safety and standards. “We're going to continue what we're doing. We don't see much change, specifically for our industry. But I could see other industries having a harder time of it.”

David Biderman, SWANA executive director and CEO, echoed Sander’s sentiments regarding efforts within the industry to protect workers. While the new guidance focuses attention on limited COVID-19 spread, “it's important to note that it's just guidance. It's not a regulation. It's not a standard. So, it doesn't create new legal obligations.”

Biderman also said vaccine distribution to solid waste and recycling workers should be prioritized.

 “The most important thing that the Biden Administration can do to protect workers from getting COVID in the solid waste industry, is to facilitate and expedite them being vaccinated,” he said, pointing out efforts to prioritize frontline waste workers for vaccination.

Order to Review

As one of his first actions in office, President Biden issued an executive order directing OSHA to "review whether an emergency temporary standard (ETS) is necessary by March 15, 2021." Four state-run plans have led the charge in adopting measures: California, Michigan, Oregon and Virginia.

Biden’s order also instructed OSHA to review current COVID-19 enforcement efforts and identify whether any changes need to be made in order to “ensure equity in enforcement,” including the launch of a national emphasis program that focuses efforts on violations that put “the largest number of workers at serious risk or are contrary to anti retaliation principles.”

Lastly, the agency must also collaborate with labor unions, community organizations and industries on a multilingual outreach campaign to inform workers and their representatives of their rights “placing a special emphasis on communities hit hardest by the pandemic.”

Sander explained, “I can see where the two camps are on an emergency temporary standard - if we need this immediately to protect workers. But then there's another side that says, I'm not sure that we ultimately protect workers if we put an emergency temporary standard out.”

As soon as the standard is issued, he said there is a “good possibility” that it will be challenged with a request for injunction. When that happens, OSHA's resources would be put towards making sure that the ETS can go into place.

With a new administration taking action, Sander said he is confident that any standards or guidance OSHA releases will be “ironclad.”

As for the addition of Jim Frederick, he said, “I think he's going to be someone who knows how to talk to unions, but also knows how to talk to management so that we can protect workers.”

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