OSHA revises COVID-19 guidance to reflect vaccinations

  • Post category:Health & Safety
  • Reading time:6 mins read

As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, public health and worker safety agencies have issued and re-issued directions to employers for copying with evolving situations. On June 10, 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revised its benchmark guidance for management of workplace COVID-19 risks. The remainder of this note summarizes OSHA’s newly-revised “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace.” (I wrote about the initial January 2021 version HERE).

How effective is vaccination?

The new guidance recognized that approved vaccinations are proving to be highly effective, once two weeks pass after the (only or second) shot. The new guidance also references the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) May 2021 “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People,” which emphasizes that fully-vaccinated people need not take all the precautions recommended for unvaccinated people – particularly masking – but points out that agency or employer or destination policies may still require masks. OSHA also repeats CDC’s caution that immunocompromised employees may wish to continue these protective measures even after vaccination.

What do workers need to know about COVID-19?

As summarized in the guidance, workers need to know about COVID exposures and management:

  • COVID-19 spreads mainly among unvaccinated people, especially if in close contact and in poorly-ventilated spaces

  • the best self-protection is vaccination

  • workers should inquire about their employer’s COVID-19 prevention plans and programs

  • whether or not included within an employer’s prevention efforts, workers should:

    • identify and use opportunities to get vaccinated

    • properly wear a face covering over mouth and nose

    • maintain personal distance – 6 feet is the generally-recommended minimum

    • identify telework and flexible scheduling opportunities

    • learn about engineering controls, such as ventilation

    • practice good personal hygiene (hand washing, covering up during sneeze or cough)

    • self-monitor health

What are employers’ and workers’ COVID response roles?

The guidance notes that employers are responsible for providing safe and healthy workplaces free of recognized hazards – this is the “General Duty clause” (I’ve written about it several times, most recently HERE). In an evolution from early guidance, this guidance notes that masks are generally no longer required except in workplaces subject to OSHA’s new “Emergency Temporary Standard for Healthcare” (with detailed requirements for workplaces that provide healthcare services), or to CDC “Requirement for Face Masks on Public Transportation Conveyances and at Transportation Hubs.”  

OSHA’s latest guidance identifies ways for employers to engage with workers to implement “multi-layered interventions to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” including:

  • grant time off for workers to get vaccinated

  • instruct infected workers, or unvaccinated workers who’ve had contact with someone who has tested positive, to stay home from work

  • implement physical distancing for unvaccinated and at-risk workers

  • provide unvaccinated and at-risk workers with face coverings (or otherwise-required personal protective equipment (PPE) such as respirators)

  • educate and train workers on the employer’s COVID-19 policies and procedures

  • suggest that unvaccinated customers, visitors and guests wear face coverings, especially in public-facing locations such as retail establishments

  • maintain ventilation systems

  • perform routine cleaning and disinfection, especially if there has been a known or suspected exposure to an infected individual

  • record and report workplace illnesses and deaths (as required by generally-applicable OSHA standards)

  • set up anonymous employee reporting and recommendation methods, and implement protections against retaliation

  • comply with other OSHA standards, such as hygiene and PPE

What does OSHA recommend for higher-risk and mixed-vaccination-status workplaces?

OSHA provides additional information in an appendix to the revised guidelines, presenting “Measures Appropriate for Higher-Risk Workplaces with Mixed-Vaccination Status Workers.” These suggestions apply to workplaces with any of the following:

  • close contact, as on production or assembly lines

  • longer duration contact, particularly for entire 8-12 hour shifts

  • types of contact where the risk of transmission is particularly high, which can include close work areas or gathering areas (workstations, or rooms for changing or breaks) where unmasked workers may sneeze or cough

  • other contacts, including carpools and employer-provided housing

OSHA suggests actions in these situations:

  • stagger break times and break areas, and ensure unvaccinated and at-risk workers maintain distancing

  • stagger arrival and departure schedules to reduce congregations in clock-in, changing, or other areas

  • provide signs, floor markings and other visual clues as reminders to maintain distancing

  • review ventilation enhancements

  • implement engineering and administrative controls to maintain distancing and/or barriers, which can include reconfiguration or work sequences, timing of inventory activities such as restocking, and separation of payment functions from other activities in retail workplaces

What now?

Worker protection recommendations and requirements continue to change as perceptions of pandemic risks change, and as total vaccination rates rise. Employers should continue to re-evaluate information about COVID-19 risks in their workplaces, including both the general course of the pandemic and their specific workforces.

Self-Assessment Checklist

Does the organization have operations that are open and staffed by employees or other workers?

Has the organization implemented (or at least prepared) adequate information and precautionary measures (e.g., equipment and procedures recommended by OSHA and CDC)?

Is the organization ready to assess employee illnesses for possible COVID-19 infections, and if any arise to be able to evaluate whether the illnesses are work-related?

Has the organization reviewed its COVID-19 related plans and programs in response to changing public health assessments and information about its workers and those who enter its facilities?

Where do I go for more information?

Information available via the Internet includes:

  • OSHA:

guidance (rev. 6/10/21)

Emergency Temporary Standard for Healthcare (see 6/21/21 Federal Register) 

Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) webpage 

  • CDC:

COVID-19 homepage 

Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People (rev. 5/28/21) 

Requirement for Face Masks on Public Transportation Conveyances and at Transportation Hubs (rev. 6/10/21) 

About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 30 years. 

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California’s Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at: tei@ix.netcom.com