Fed OSHA and State OSH Plans Address Ventilation to Reduce the Workplace Spread of COVID-19

By Conn Maciel Carey’s COVID-19 Task Force

While each week seems to bring news of new COVID-19 rules imposed by a state, county or city, federal OSHA continues to offer guidance of which employers should take notice.  Earlier this month, on November 5th, OSHA issued a new publication focused on ways employers can use ventilation to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 virus droplets through the air in their workplaces.

“Ensuring adequate ventilation throughout the work environment can help to maintain a safe and healthy workplace.”

The guidance provides a window into the types of questions OSHA may ask during future COVID-related inspections, and could be referenced as support for General Duty Clause violations.  Employees, as well as lawyers representing individuals bringing wrongful death actions on behalf of deceased employees, may also question why an employer opted not to evaluate ventilation systems and take some or all of the steps recommended by OSHA.

We had been bracing for guidance or regulatory requirements related to ventilation, with concerns that it would require capital projects to overhaul existing HVAC systems.  But fortunately, this guidance does not go that far, and in fact, most of the recommended steps are not particularly burdensome.  For example, OSHA suggests working with a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) specialist to ensure the employer’s HVAC systems are fully functional.  OSHA also recommends that employers open windows or provide other sources of fresh air wherever possible, and leave restroom exhaust fans on continuously while operating at maximum capacity — steps that can be achieved without infrastructure changes to the workplace.

More burdensome than leaving a bathroom fan running or a window open, however, OSHA also advises installing air filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating of 13 or higher, where feasible (i.e., where the system can handle it), and using portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) fan/filtration systems to increase clean air, especially in higher-risk areas.

When working with an HVAC specialist, the guidance recommends that employers also should confirm that Continue reading