Return-to-work guidelines: Safeguarding sites in the US

From mandatory requirements to recommendations to keep in mind, these return-to-work guidelines cover what to know before you go back onsite.

Taylor Murphy

by Taylor Murphy

With more US employees getting vaccinated and authorities lifting or loosening COVID-19 restrictions in many jurisdictions, companies are beginning to go back onsite. Or, at least, they’re starting to tackle the logistics of safely returning. Without much federal regulation in place for returning to US facilities in person, what’s required to keep them safe can be a bit foggy. As you develop or update your internal policies, use these return-to-work guidelines  to be aware of the challenges involved and be prepared for the complexities of onsite.

Return-to-work guidelines from updated OSHA emergency standard and guidance

On 21 June 2021, OSHA issued its much-anticipated COVID-19 emergency temporary standard (ETS). While originally expected to address all workplaces, the ETS applies only to healthcare facilities. However, be aware that this includes any healthcare settings embedded in other types of facilities (for example, a medical clinic inside a manufacturing facility). If any of your sites have an area for healthcare purposes, including a temporary clinic for COVID-19 vaccinations, make sure that they’re in accordance with this ETS. Doing so involves providing the recommended protection for your workplace, including specific procedures for cleaning and disinfecting.

Additionally, OSHA updated its existing COVID-19 guidance for workplaces that are not covered under the ETS, such as manufacturing facilities and office buildings. While the guidance doesn’t create mandatory requirements, its recommendations can help you ready your facilities for workers coming back on site.

Specifically, these return-to-work guidelines mean to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers. The updated guidance recommends for you to ensure separation between unvaccinated or at-risk employees from infected employees or those experiencing symptoms.
To be sure that you’re safeguarding your sites, modify your policies and protocols to ensure alignment with the updated OSHA guidance – and allow for additional protection for any at-risk workers.

Staying in line with return-to-work guidelines, state-to-state

Using federal guidances and regulations as a starting point, you’ll also need to align with your state and local regulations, policies, and guidance for going back to work in-person. Even though most US states are opening up, either reducing or removing restrictions (e.g., lifting mask mandates for vaccinated people), others are issuing or extending COVID-19 requirements for companies.

For example, after a controversial workplace standard was proposed and revised, California adopted more stringent requirements. One of which is requiring employers to verify and document the vaccination status of employees if they do not wear face coverings indoors.

State and local regulations and policies are still rapidly changing. If your company decides to return to the physical office, make sure that you’re in line with more-stringent state-level requirements or guidances to keep workers safe (and your business in accordance with the law). You can do this by ensuring that your regulatory monitoring outlook includes jurisdiction-level developments.

Last but certainly not least: Lasting mandatory standards still in effect

Even though the community is making progress to combat the pandemic, companies going back onsite must remember the mandatory standards that still apply in the US. For example, you must record and report work-related cases of COVID-19 infections and deaths that fall under the relevant recording criteria. These include the number of days away from work or any administered medical treatment. (However, the updated guidance has adapted this reporting standard, notably to encourage workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine , through May 2022, OSHA will not require employers to record worker side effects from vaccination.)

Additionally, your company must continue to comply with all of OSHA’s standards to protect workers from infection. These standards include providing applicable PPE requirements and respiratory protections as well as ensuring sanitation protocols, protection from bloodborne pathogens, and employees’ access to medical and exposure records. On top of this, companies must continue to “provide a workplace free from hazards,” as per the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970’s general duty clause.

Though the general duty clause is relatively vague, companies can stay in accordance with it by staying aware and being proactive. To provide a safe and healthful workplace, your EHS team should first keep up to date on changing policies and background news, which shed light on growing risks, such as mental health concerns. Then, as you’re aware of them, continually eliminate all hazards in your company’s workplaces that could lead to injury or illness. Some examples include repetitive lifting, workplace violence, and ergonomic issues.

Onsite after COVID-19: Conquering the challenge with return-to-work guidelines.

Understanding and implementing COVID-19 safety standards is a challenge. Especially with no clearly set federal regulations, much of the responsibility falls to companies to determine how to keep their facilities safe. As more workers get vaccinated and companies start returning to the office, it’s imperative that your internal policies and procedures reflect the new landscape of health and safety at work. While exactly how to do so is up to you, these return-to-work guidelines can help you understand exactly what to consider when doing your part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

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