Fed OSHA’s COVID-19 ETS: What You Need to Know About Physical Barriers

By Conn Maciel Carey’s COVID-19 Task Force

Today’s topic is physical barriers…what has to be installed and where they have to be installed.

29 C.F.R. Section 1910.502(i) of the ETS establishes a requirement for physical barriers to be installed under certain circumstances. Solid barriers must be installed at each fixed work location outside of direct patient care areas where an employee is not separated from all other people by at least 6 feet of distance, except where the employer can demonstrate it is not feasible to do so or where the exception for vaccinated employees applies.  This summary describes the standard’s requirements for physical barriers.

Where barriers are required, they must be of sufficient height and width and situated in a manner to block face-to-face pathways between individuals based on where each person would normally stand or sit. They must either be easily cleanable or disposable.  While the ETS does not specify the type of material that must be used for physical barriers, OSHA explains in the preamble that the material must be impermeable to infectious droplets that are transmitted when an infected individual is sneezing, coughing, breathing, talking, or yelling – such as plastic or acrylic partitions. The barriers must be designed, constructed, and installed to prevent droplets from reaching employees when they are in their normal sitting or standing location relative to the workstation. OSHA recognizes that effective design and installation of physical barriers will differ among workplaces based on job tasks, work processes, potential users, and the physical layout of the work area.

In terms of where barriers need to be installed and where they don’t, the ETS exempts direct patient care areas as well as resident rooms from the requirement for physical barriers.  Direct patient care is specifically defined as “hands-on, face-to-face contact with patients for the purpose of diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring.”  Physical barriers also are not required when an employer can demonstrate that such barriers would be infeasible (in a location they otherwise would be required).  In the preamble to the ETS, OSHA elaborates on areas where physical barriers are essentially deemed to be feasible and infeasible.  OSHA states that it is feasible to install physical barriers at hospital security checkpoints; reception desks; patient/visitor information counters; triage stations; hospital pharmacy windows; and bill payment stations.  On the other hand, OSHA expressly recognizes areas where physical barriers (and physical distancing) likely would be infeasible – areas where direct patient care or EMS services are performed on a patient, or in locations where barriers would obstruct emergency egress paths or interfere with a facility’s fire safety systems (e.g. fire alarm notification devices, fire sprinklers, fire pull stations).

Please contact any of the OSHA attorneys in Conn Maciel Carey’s national OSHA Practice if you need help determining where physical barriers must be installed in your facilities.  Also, check out our articles about other sections of the ETS, including:

Look for another blog tomorrow!

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