UPDATED: How to Comply with Cal/OSHA Emergency COVID-19 Standards

We are well over one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst the chaos, regulatory agencies have been working hard behind the scenes to assess the role of safety at work. If you operate a business in California, you have some significant COVID-19 specific obligations to California OSHA (Cal/OSHA).

Cal/OSHA adopted emergency COVID-19 temporary standards in November 2020 to protect California workers from COVID-19 hazards in the workplace. The California Office of Administrative Law made the standard official and required employers in California to take action to comply as of November 30, 2020.

If you fall under Cal/OSHA’s compliance umbrella, then you need to stand up and take notice, or you risk facing significant penalties.

What’s in the emergency guidance, and what more does it require from your safety team?

Tip: Use this article as a resource in achieving better compliance with general OSHA regulations for your industry. However, the following information isn’t a substitute for legal or medical advice.

Update: The Office of Administrative Law is expected to approve an amended ETS for California, updated to address new CDC guidance for fully-vaccinated people.

What are the Cal/OSHA COVID-19 Requirements?

Many of the Cal/OSHA Emergency COVID-19 Prevention Standard requirements already exist in the present Injury and Illness Prevention Plan (IIPP) standard.

Areas of overlapping standard requirements are: 

  • Safety Communications
  • Hazard Assessment and Control
  • Incident Investigation, Safety Planning
  • Rules and Work Procedures and Training

In other words, your Company IIPP should already address all of the above issues. However, these sections need to be updated to include specific requirements from the Emergency COVID Standard.

What’s New from Cal/OSHA?

The Interim Guidelines place additional responsibilities on employers to take actions to: 

  • prevent or reduce employee exposure
  • provide safe worksites
  • improve cleaning and hygiene
  • provide for COVID-19 testing
  • offer additional PPE 
  • improve COVID-19 related illness case management

Cal/OSHA also provides specific guidance for employer-provided living quarters, employer-provided transportation, and COVID-19 outbreak reporting. 

Major new compliance areas:

  • No-cost testing for employees with potential COVID-19 exposure. Employers should schedule tests during working hours, and hours spent in testing are considered time working. 
  • Assess the need for respiratory protection if social distancing is not feasible in the workplace. 
  • “Continue and maintain an employee’s earnings, seniority, and all other rights and benefits” when COVID-19 exposure was work-related, and the employee can’t work due to either sickness or the need for a quarantine period outside the workplace.
  • Install cleanable solid partitions, provide face coverings and washing facilities in work areas where distancing is not possible.
  • In situations where either housing or transportation is employer-provided, there are additional cleaning requirements
  • Employers must facilitate social distancing in housing units and provide access to private space for quarantine (if required). 
  • There are specific requirements against retaliation against employees who report symptoms or miss work due to illness from COVID-19. 
  • Employers cannot require employees to provide negative COVID-19 test results to return to work. 

New Updated Compliance Measures as of June 10, 2021

Changes to the ETS reflect the prospect of the vaccination roll-out among workers in California. Some of the proposed changes to the compliance measures include:

  • Continue 6-feet physical distancing requirements at work until July 31. There are exceptions for employees wearing respirators and locations where employees are all vaccinated, except where there’s a reasonable exception made.
  • Provide face coverings for employees. However, there are exceptions: when an employee is alone in a room; when all persons are vaccinated; when the employee wears respirators; when they work outdoors and are vaccinated and have no symptoms

How to Comply with the Cal/OSHA COVID-19 Requirements 

California OSHA published a “Frequently Asked Questions” document, and it’s is a helpful guide to the implementation of the Emergency Standard. However, before setting out to complete the work, it’s vital to know if the standard applies to your business.

The emergency standard applies to all employers, employees, and places of employment. Exemptions apply to workplaces where:

The first step is to evaluate your workplace and work processes to see if it’s possible to maintain greater than 6 feet of social distance between persons working or walking through the facility. 

If not, you will need to make structural changes, such as: 

  • removing or blocking adjacent workstations or cubicles
  • adding clear plastic barriers (especially between members of the public and your workers)
  • increasing filter efficiency and fresh airflow from your building’s HVAC system 

As always, including your workers in understanding the need for change and asking them for ideas on making them happen will result in better morale and compliance with the new rules and ways of doing business.

Are you ready to get started with the new Cal/OSHA requirements? Find some baseline instructions for the new major compliance areas below.

Written COVID-19 Prevention Program 

Your written COVID-19 prevention program may be an addendum to the existing Company IIPP. 

It needs to contain procedures for: 

  • employee reporting
  • accommodating employees exposed to COVID-19 or showing symptoms, 
  • providing information about access to testing
  • employee awareness training 

Employee and Visitor Screening Procedures 

Although screening is not a guarantee that employees aren’t carrying COVID-19, they effectively alert you to known symptoms and the need for testing. 

Some companies use automated applications for employees to complete before coming to the workplace. Others do “in-person” screening. Whatever you choose, the specific mechanism should scale to cover the number of employees required on site. 

Find additional guidance on screening from the US Centers for Disease Control.

COVID-19 Hazard Assessment and Correction

You must have a process to evaluate the workplace and possible employee exposure while working. Additionally, you must evaluate and determine the effectiveness of cleaning procedures and evaluate and increase building ventilation (where possible). 

The employer must also develop a process for:

  • employee and visitor screening
  • response to employee exposure
  • response for employees with COVID-19 symptoms

These processes must include exposure tracking.

COVID-19 Investigation

Employers must investigate and take action on COVID-19 cases in the workplace. They must determine when symptoms first appeared. They must also determine who may have been exposed and then notify all close contacts of potential exposure. 

Every employer must have a process for preventing exposed workers from returning to the workplace until after symptoms have ceased.

Employee COVID-19 Training

The employer must train and educate the workforce on the nature of COVID-19, exposure mechanisms, and prevention strategies. They must also provide information on recognizing symptoms, pre-work screening procedures, voluntary reporting to the employer, and actions to take if quarantine is required.

New: Documentation for New Exceptions

Although there are new exceptions for physical distancing and mask-wearing, employers must be prepared to provide documentation showing that the employer qualifies for these exceptions. In other words, employers need proof that all employees have the vaccine (except where the employee has a reasonable accommodation or exception to vaccination).

Collecting this information must be done with respect to medical records and patient/employee privacy.

Actions to Take for COVID-19 Case Management

If there is a confirmed COVID-19 case or incident of potential transmission linked to the workplace, Cal/OSHA requires your company to take the following actions:

  • Determine the date and time the COVID-19 positive person was present and the date of any symptoms, if present.
  • Evaluate all of the work areas and personnel the COVID-19 positive person may have interacted with and which activities they participated in.
  • Notify anyone who may have come into contact with the COVID-19 positive person (maintain the confidentiality of the COVID-19 positive person). Notification extends to contractors and other employers present at the workplace.
  • Offer no-cost COVID-19 testing to employees who had potential exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.
  • Investigate whether any workplace conditions could have contributed to the risk of COVID-19 exposure, and what you can do to reduce the risk.
  • If there are three or more COVID-19 cases in the workplace over 14 days, special regulations apply.

COVID-19 Case Reporting Requirements

Workplace-related COVID-19 illnesses and lost time shall be reported on the company OSHA 300 log, as any other work-related illness or injury. 

In addition, there are some specific reporting requirements:

  • Check local Health Department Guidelines for your area for local COVID-19 reporting rules.
  • Immediately report any COVID-19-related hospitalizations or deaths for work-related cases of COVID-19 to Cal/OSHA.
  • Keep records of each confirmed case and track all COVID-19 cases with the employee’s name, contact information, occupation, work location, last date worked, date of positive COVID-19 test. Make it available (without any personal identifying information) if required by an authorized individual or agency.

Stay Vigilant for Compliance and COVID-19 Case Management

The Cal/OSHA ETS now reflects a new reality in which there is an effective vaccine for COVID-19. However, California businesses still have COVID-19 compliance requirements, even when all employees are vaccinated. You can use our Cal/OSHA COVID-19 checklist to help you continue to maintain compliance with the ETS.

While meeting these requirements will help achieve compliance, they may not be enough to keep COVID-19 out of your workplace. It’s important to remain vigilant even as cases slow and vaccination rates rise.

Are you looking for more free COVID-19 resources? Check out Safesite’s COVID-19 Checklists and Safety Meeting Templates for more helpful tools.

Sources and Reference Material:

  1. State of California Department of Industrial Relations: Cal/OSHA COVID-19 Guidance and Resources
  2. State of California Department of Industrial Relations: COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standards
  3. State of California Department of Industrial Relations: COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standards Frequently Asked Questions
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: CDC Facilities COVID-19 Screening
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: COVID-19 Testing Overview
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to COVID-19
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Resuming Business Toolkit

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Dave Paoletta

By Dave Paoletta

David Paoletta, MS, MBA, CSP, CUSP, is a research analyst and subject matter expert for Safesite, a safety management software company based in San Francisco, CA. He is also a principal consultant with New Dimensions in Safety in Alameda, CA. David has extensive utility field safety experience with PG&E and PNM New Mexico. He is a Past NM ASSE SPY Award winner and a Past President of the San Francisco Chapter ASSE.

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