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OSHA Updates Guidance on Protecting Unvaccinated Workers

By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP

August 17, 2021


The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that vaccinated workers in certain COVID-19 hot spots and high-risk settings wear masks to protect unvaccinated and immunocompromised workers, according to recently updated guidelines.

OSHA also recommends that fully vaccinated workers who have close contact with people who test positive for COVID-19 wear a mask for up to 14 days unless they test negative 3-5 days after the contact.


"The updated guidance expands information on appropriate measures for protecting workers in higher-risk workplaces with mixed-vaccination status workers," OSHA said. The agency identified the following high-risk work settings as places where employees often have close contact with other people:

  • Manufacturing.

  • Meat, seafood and poultry processing.

  • High-volume retail and grocery.

  • Agricultural processing.

The guidance was updated to align with the latest mask-wearing and COVID-19 testing recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

We've rounded up articles and resources from SHRM Online and other trusted media outlets on the news.


Vaccination Is 'Optimal'

OSHA said getting vaccinated against the coronavirus is "the optimal step" to protect the workplace. The agency encouraged employers to "engage with workers and their representatives to implement multi-layered approaches to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers from the coronavirus." OSHA "suggests that employers consider adopting policies that require workers to get vaccinated or to undergo regular COVID-19 testing—in addition to mask wearing and physical distancing—if they remain unvaccinated."


High or Substantial COVID-19 Transmission Rates

Workplace safety guidelines from federal, state and local authorities have rapidly changed in response to the highly transmittable COVID-19 delta variant. Significantly, the CDC is recommending that fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings if they are in locations with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission rates. COVID-19 transmission levels vary significantly by geographic location, so employers should consult the map on the CDC's website with county-specific data.


Questions Remain

Eric Hobbs, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee, said OSHA's guidance isn't clear about when fully vaccinated workers should be wearing masks. For example, does the guidance apply to private offices and cubicles in manufacturing and other heightened-risk settings? "Most employers with workplaces meeting the updated OSHA guidance's criteria for vaccinated employee masking, however, will not want to risk being the test case," Hobbs said. "Any such employer should consider requiring its fully vaccinated employees to wear masks if the workplace is in a heightened-risk category, is in an area of high or substantial transmission, and includes unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk employees." He noted that employers also should consider what impact reimposing mask requirements on fully vaccinated workers will have on employee morale, as well as hiring and retention efforts.


Health Care Emergency Standard Still Applies

OSHA's guidance provides recommendations and does not mandate COVID-19 vaccination in the workplace. "OSHA suggests that employers consider adopting policies that require workers to get vaccinated or to undergo regular COVID-19 testing—in addition to mask wearing and physical distancing—if they remain unvaccinated," according to the guidance. A separate COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) applies to employers in certain health care settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes. The agency issued a notice stating that the CDC's most recent guidance doesn't change the requirements for health care employers under the ETS.


Employers Should Be Cautious When Asking About Vaccination Status

As the COVID-19 delta variant spreads, many employers are requiring workers to show proof of their vaccination status or wear masks and submit to regular COVID-19 testing. Employment law attorneys recommend that businesses carefully craft vaccination policies, and they caution employers not to ask for too much information. Here are some tips for employers.



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