OSHA issued a press release announcing it was citing a Missouri manufacturer for failing to implement, enforce coronavirus protections as exposure leads to press operator's death. This stemmed from the manufacturer failing to recognize both Federal guidance and the local county's mandate regarding coronavirus protections.
Two machine operators on the same press tested positive for the coronavirus just two days apart in August 2020. The two workers typically worked just two feet apart for hours at a time. Neither of the operators wore a facial mask consistently. Two more workers on similar presses tested positive 10 days later. And on September 19, 2020 one of the press operators died from the virus.
The manufacturer was later cited under OSHA's general duty clause for failing to maintain safe working conditions. As part of the investigation it was determined with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the deceased employee contracted the virus while on the job.
The citation alleges the manufacturer failed to implement social distancing practices or enforce the use of face masks.
Based on this citation employers can expect that OSHA will issue citations for disregarding local, state and federal guidance when it results in injury or death as in this case. In some cases it is difficult to maintain distances between employees and in such cases employers may want to consider physical barriers and enforcing mask usage. Supervisors should be vigilant in enforcing mask usage policies. It will not be enough to simply have a mask usage policy in place. If it is not enforced, employees may look at the standard as optional. If possible companies may want to keep audit records of mask safety checks to show this is being enforced.
OSHA has released guidance suggesting the use of Plexiglas or flexible curtain strips as a physical barrier when 6 feet of separation is not possible. If employees need to pass materials then openings should be as small as possible. Biden's administration has also issued guidance to improve air flow at work cites by increasing the ventilation rates and reducing the re-circulation of air and adding filtration where possible.
OSHA has also made it clear that employers must record or report all work-related coronavirus infections. This will be difficult for employers in determining if the infection originated at work or in the community. OSHA guidance from May 2020 addresses the determination by considering if there were several cases among employees who work closely together and if there is no alternative explanation for how they contracted the virus. Per the guidance if you conducted a reasonable and good faith inquiry and you do not determine whether it is more likely than not the employee contracted the virus at work, then the employer is not required to record or report the incident to OSHA.
President Biden has issued an Executive Order requiring OSHA to examine whether emergency rules are needed and to issue them by March 15, 2021. To date no emergency standard has been issued.
Employers should consider enforcement of mask usage and consider OSHA guidance in using physical barriers when needed.
A link to OSHA's guidance may be found here, https://www.osha.gov/coronavirus/safework
A link to OSHA's press release regarding the Missouri manufacturer may be found here, https://www.osha.gov/news/newsreleases/region7/02232021
President Biden's executive order may be found here, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/21/executive-order-protecting-worker-health-and-safety/