On July 2, 2020, OSHA published an FAQ web page based on COVID-19 related inquiries that the agency received from the public. The FAQ page provides a central location for information and links on a variety of topics related to best practices to ensure worker safety and protect workers’ rights during the ongoing pandemic. Although the majority of the guidance contained in OSHA’s responses is not new, employers should review the FAQ page to ensure their health and safety policies and procedures follow OSHA’s recommendations.

FAQ topics

The FAQs are grouped by topic and cover the following:

  • General Information

  • Cleaning and Disinfection

  • Construction

  • Cloth Face Coverings

  • Employer Requirements

  • Healthcare

  • Personal Protective Equipment

  • Restrooms and Handwashing Facilities

  • Retaliation

  • Return to Work

  • Testing for COVID-19

  • Training

  • Worker Protection Concerns

The FAQ responses within each topic contain links to various guidelines and recommendations issued by OSHA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

FAQ highlights

Q: Should workers wear a cloth face covering while at work, in accordance with the CDC recommendation for all people to do so when in public?

A: “OSHA generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work.”  However, OSHA also instructs that “[e]mployers have the discretion to determine whether to allow employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace based on the specific circumstances present at the work site.”  OSHA then identifies the following examples of when an employer may determine that wearing cloth face coverings presents or exacerbates a hazard.

  • The cloth face covering could become contaminated with chemicals used in the work environment, causing workers to inhale the chemicals that collect on the face covering.

  • The cloth face coverings might become damp (from workers breathing) or collect infectious material from the work environment (e.g., droplets of other peoples’ infectious respiratory secretions) over the duration of a work shift.

  • Workers may also need to use PPE that is incompatible with the use of a cloth face covering (e.g., an N95 filtering facepiece respirator).

OSHA further advises that “[w]here cloth face coverings are not appropriate in the work environment or during certain job tasks (e.g., because they could become contaminated or exacerbate heat illness), employers can provide PPE, such as face shields and/or surgical masks, instead of encouraging workers to wear cloth face coverings.”  Thus, OSHA’s response essentially advises that employers should have employees wear some form of face covering, whether it be cloth or PPE where cloth face coverings provide insufficient protection.

Q: Is an employer required to notify other employees if a worker gets COVID-19 or tests positive for COVID-19?

A: “OSHA does not require employers to notify other employees if one of their coworkers gets COVID-19.”  However, OSHA also advises that employers must take appropriate steps to protect other workers from exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, which may include “notifying other workers to monitor themselves for signs/symptoms of COVID-19” after learning of an employee’s confirmed case.  OSHA’s response further notes that the CDC “recommends employers determine which employees may have been exposed to the virus and inform employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.”  Therefore, in most circumstances the prudent course for employers is to notify employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 through recent, close contact with an infected employee (without violating federal, state, and local laws on confidentiality and privacy by disclosing the infected employee’s identity) and take additional steps, such as quarantining potentially infected employees, as necessary.  That course is especially advisable in states like California that have separate OSHA-approved State Plan guidance that specifically instructs employers to inform employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.

Q: Can my employer force me to work if I have concerns about COVID-19, including a coworker having tested positive, personal medical concerns, or a high-risk family member living at my home?

A: OSHA advises that employers generally may require employees to work during the COVID-19 pandemic so long as state and local governments permit the employer’s business to remain open.  However, OSHA also notes that section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act provides workers with more than just protection against retaliation for complaints about a health or safety hazard.  Under 29 C.F.R. § 1977.12(b), an employer may not discipline an employee for refusing to work or perform certain assigned tasks under the following circumstances:

  • The worker has a good faith belief that they face death or serious injury;

  • The situation is so clearly hazardous that any reasonable person would believe the same;

  • The situation is so urgent that the worker does not have time to eliminate the hazard through regulatory channels, such as calling OSHA; and

  • The worker tried, where possible, to get his or her employer to correct the condition, was unable to obtain a correction, and there is no other way to do the job safely.[1]

OSHA further instructs employers to consult guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to learn more about reasonable accommodations.