COVID-19 and the age of physical distancing (also known as social distancing) has classified employees as either essential or non-essential until the virus is under control. While some of us have been adjusting to working remotely, have been put on furlough, or have even been laid off, many people are still considered essential employees and are going into the field every day as normal. However, while their work schedules are normal or have even increased, the world around them has changed drastically and “Health and Safety” have taken on new meanings for employees and employers alike, especially within manufacturing plants and facilities. Keeping manufacturing employees healthy at work is and should be a main priority for employers and for our country during this time.
Essential manufacturers are those that are producing our groceries, household essentials and toiletries, vital metals like steel and aluminum, industrial minerals, semiconductors, products for medical supply chains, chemical manufacturing, power generation facilities and so many more essential cogs in the proverbial machine.
Without these people, functions and supply-chains, our lives, economy, overall well-being and way of life would be highly compromised. With this in mind, what steps and actions are employers taking to make sure their employees stay healthy and safe in the field? Many corporations and companies have well-adjusted themselves to the change in environment while others, in recent weeks, scramble to get themselves on a solid policy and procedure that will effectively protect employees in an unprecedented climate.
Most manufacturing plants and facilities obtain policy and procedures through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), ISO audits, risk assessments, health and safety training, Health and Safety Engineers, and Compliance Managers that enforce OSHA standards. OSHA does not have set-in-stone COVID-19 procedures, but rather, standards that are already in place can apply to the prevention and control of the virus in the manufacturing environment. The most applicable of these OSHA Standards are:
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): PPE is a good place for manufacturers to start when it comes to protecting employees. The general requirements for PPE include requiring the use of gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection (for necessary industries and environments). Section 1910.132(a) of the OSHA Standards General Requirements mentions that protective clothing and protective shields and barriers may also need to be used and, “maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition wherever it is necessary by reason of hazards of processes or environment, chemical hazards, radiological hazards, or mechanical irritants encountered in a manner capable of causing injury or impairment in the function of any part of the body through absorption, inhalation or physical contact.” Regardless of who provides the PPE (employer or employee), the employer is responsible for ensuring that the PPE is adequate, of safe design for the work being performed, and is maintained properly with appropriate amount of sanitation. For more info on OSHA PPE Standards, please visit 1910.132 General Requirements.
OSHA Act of 1970: The OSHA Act of 1970 is applicable during the era of COVID-19 because it requires that an employer provide, to each employee, employment and place of employment, “which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” (Sec. 5 Duties). The Act also requires each employee to comply with OSHA Standards and all rules and regulations of the Act that are applicable to each individual’s actions and conduct. This mutual agreement between employer and employee should provide an environment in which one can trust that all precautions are being taken, by every party, in order to protect everyone from COVID-19. If an employee feels as though that OSHA Standards are not being followed by an employer, to the best of their ability, he/she/they have rights, under Sec. 11 of the Act, to raise concerns about the health and safety conditions of the work environment. Under the act, an employer cannot take retaliation measures and OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program provides provisions for over 20 different industry-specific laws, protecting employees from employer retaliation.
Chemical Protection: This piece will be important since most employers are taking measures to be using more hand sanitizer and an increased amount of other sanitation chemicals for the cleaning and disinfection of the workplace. Employers have a duty to protect their employees from hazardous chemicals and materials by means of communicating with employees, (Hazard Communication standard in general industry, 29 CFR 1910.1200) and by providing and/or enforcing Personal Protective Equipment standards (in general industry 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I) and other applicable OSHA chemical standards.
Another way to ensure health and safety in the manufacturing environment during this time is to conduct risk assessments as well as health and safety surveys. Hiring a third-party specialist to do such an audit can be beneficial because they may catch something that the employer or employee may overlook or not catch at first. Even if a company did an audit in January, conducting a brand new one is essential considering how quickly the COVID-19 circumstances have changed. This could give a fresh perspective on the manufacturing environment and make employers as aware as possible.
Lastly, conducting training can be a crucial part of keeping manufacturing employees safe. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page and taking a consistent level of precautions in the workplace. This training should be as frequent as possible and can revolve around anything from industry-specific systems and activities and training around PPE to handwashing and proper use of sanitation and disinfectant materials.
When forming an updated policy and procedure around health and safety during a time such as this, incorporating physical distancing, proper use of hand sanitizer and proper ways to wash hands can be highly beneficial. Sometimes these things can be overlooked, since for some it seems like common knowledge, but ensuring that everyone is on the same page is vital to keeping everyone safe.
On behalf of everyone at GattiHR, we would like to extend a warm thank you, to everyone on the front lines of the pandemic. From doctors and nurses, to production workers and labors, and vital manufacturing employees; we appreciate you and we commend you for your selfless work during this time.