Worker Safety During COVID-19

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 

To date, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not mandated any infectious disease standard or similar standard that directly addresses the safety issues caused by COVID-19.  In early March 2020, OSHA released Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 , which provides guidance and best practices for reducing workplace exposure to COVID-19.

While there is no federal standard that covers exposure to COVID-19, some existing OSHA requirements are relevant to those working during the pandemic.  First, OSHA’s “General Duty” standard requires employers to provide their employees with “employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” 29 U.S.C. §654(a)(1); see also N.C.G.S § 95-126 (state standard). Second, OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standard requires use of gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection where respirators are necessary to protect workers.  29 C.F.R. § 1910.134.

In early April 2020, OSHA released interim guidance loosening requirements for employers to notify OSHA when an employee contracts COVID-19 from exposure in the workplace. Around the same time, the Center for Disease Control issued guidance advising employers that critical infrastructure workers can be required to continue working following a potential exposure to COVID-19 “provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.” Public health officials and advocates have expressed concern that this guidance could put workers and surrounding communities at greater risk for contracting COVID-19.

NC Occupational Safety and Health Division (NC OSH)

North Carolina is one of 28 states approved to run a state OSHA plan that must maintain standards and enforcement programs that are at least as effective as the federal program and which have the power to implement more stringent safety standards.  The North Carolina Department of Labor (NC DOL), Occupational, Safety & Health Division (NC OSH) has not released any specific standard related to COVID-19.  However, NC OSH provides provides general information and answers to frequently asked questions regarding COVID-19 on its website.

Employees may report unsafe conditions related to COVID-19 or otherwise to the NC OSH by calling (919)-779-8560, or 1-800-NC-LABOR. Complaints may be also filed online.

Protection from Retaliation

It is unlawful under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act and the North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) for employers to retaliate against workers for complaining about or reporting safety issues in the workplace.  Under federal law, if an employee, “with no reasonable alternative, refuses in good faith to expose himself to the dangerous condition, he would be protected against subsequent discrimination. The condition causing the employee’s apprehension of death or injury must be of such a nature that a reasonable person would conclude there is real danger of death or serious injury and that there is not sufficient time to eliminate the danger through regular statutory enforcement channels.” See 29 C.F.R. § 1977.12.  If possible, employees should have also sought from their employers, and unable to obtain, a correction of the dangerous condition.

An employee that has been discriminated against or faced retaliatory action from an employer for reporting or complaining about a safety violation should call (800)-625-2267 to request a complaint form from the NC Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Bureau (REDB). The complaint must be filed within 180 days of the date of the last retaliatory or discriminatory act.  For further information, contact the REDB by email at ask.edb@labor.nc.gov or call 1-800-NC-LABOR.

If you think your rights have been violated, call our firm toll free at 1-800-458-2541 or contact us online today.