CORONAVIRUS

OSHA finds nearly $1 million in coronavirus violations nationwide

Employees work where a tent once stood at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction on April 16. Two em
Employees work where a tent once stood at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction on April 16. Two employees have died after a coronavirus outbreak at the pork processing plant. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Employers are required by state and federal law to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for their employees. That duty has become more pressing than ever during the coronavirus pandemic.

Employees working on-site are at risk of transmission from co-workers, vendors, customers and other members of the public to whom they are exposed in the workplace.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends employers conduct a thorough hazard assessment to identify employees’ risk of COVID-19 exposure while at work.

This assessment must be position-specific, and should account for factors such as the essential job functions, amount of interpersonal contact required to perform those duties and the scope of travel for the position.

OSHA recognizes several tiers of risk exposure ranging from “lower risk” positions — such as office workers and manufacturing employees who do not have frequent contract with others — to “very high risk” positions such as health care workers and morticians working with known or suspected coronavirus carriers.

Performing a full hazard assessment allows employers to implement appropriate combinations of engineering and policy controls designed to protect employees from viral exposure.

Where personal protective equipment is required, it must be provided to workers at no cost, and workers must be trained in its correct use.

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Even where PPE is not required, OSHA recommends that employers encourage workers to work cloth face covering at work.

How is America doing in meeting OSHA’s health and safety standards? Between March and September, OSHA cited 62 establishments for violations of its coronavirus safety standards, resulting in proposed penalties totaling $913,133.

Employers ranging from a Masonic lodge to multiple hospitals have been cited for various violations of OSHA rules, including:

• Failure to implement a written respiratory protection program

• Failure to provide a medical evaluation, respirator fit test, training on the proper use of a respirator and personal protective equipment

• Failure to report an injury, illness or fatality

• Failure to record an injury or illness on OSHA record-keeping forms

• Failure to comply with OSHA’s general duty clause.

More information regarding citations to date can be found at dol.gov/newsroom.

No Iowa employers have been cited to date, although multiple OSHA complaints apparently have been filed.

Notably, meatpacking plants have been at the center of at least three outbreaks in the state of Iowa, including one allegedly resulting in the deaths of two employees.

OSHA continues to publish guidance and other resources designed to help direct employers’ compliance efforts during this uncertain time.

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You should rely on the advice of your compliance officers and attorneys as we head into the winter, when many public health commentators warn of expected increases in outbreaks.

Ensuring workplace health and safety ultimately is in the interests of both employee and employer. Workers who feel their workplace is safe are more likely to report for work and maintain productivity during the pandemic.

Clear communication also promotes confidence in the employer’s ability to protect workers and reduces absenteeism.

Wilford H. Stone is a lawyer with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids.

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