Responding to an executive order issued by the Biden administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued guidance for companies to help stop the spread of COVID at workplaces and said it was looking at setting an emergency standard for COVID-19.

Speaking to reporters Friday, OSHA officials also said the guidance was just the start of its efforts to protect workers from COVID.

“It's morally and economically imperative that we ensure the health and safety of our workers,” senior counselor to the Secretary of Labor M. Patricia Smith said. “The guidance that we're announcing today is an important first step towards that end.”

The meat industry, which has dealt with coronavirus outbreaks at facilities throughout the country, did not seem concerned about the impact of the guidance. “These recommendations are similar” to previous guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA, North American Meat Institute spokesperson Sarah Little said. “Our members have implemented these protections and more.”

The guidance “recommends several essential elements in a prevention program,” OSHA said in a news release:

  • Conduct a hazard assessment.
  • Identify control measures to limit the spread of the virus.
  • Adopt policies for employee absences that don’t punish workers as a way to encourage potentially infected workers to remain home.
  • Ensure coronavirus policies and procedures are communicated to both English and non-English speaking workers.
  • Implement protections from retaliation for workers who raise coronavirus-related concerns.

The executive order issued by Biden last week called on OSHA to “consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary.” If OSHA determines they are necessary, the EO says they should be issued by March 15.

The officials on the call did not offer any details on what form any emergency standards might take.

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“We are still in the assessment phase of considering the items in the executive order,” said Jim Frederick, deputy assistant secretary for occupational safety and health. “The guidance … is the first step in that process, but certainly is not going to be the last step in the process.”

OSHA officials also addressed an accident Thursday at a poultry plant in Georgia that has resulted in the deaths of six people and the hospitalization of 11 others, according to The Associated Press, which quoted a Foundation Food Group official as saying the cause was a leak of liquid nitrogen.

“Our hearts go out to the families of the workers who were killed yesterday in Gainesville, Georgia, as well as those who were injured in the incident,” Smith said. “Events like this underscore the importance of safe work policies and the role that OSHA plays in keeping safe our nation's workers.”

Frederick said OSHA “had multiple compliance officers on site within minutes or within an hour or so of the incident occurring.”

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