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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
One of the current Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations on center stage as a result of the health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 is OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR § 1910.134 (“the Standard”). On March 14, 2020, OSHA issued a Temporary Enforcement Guidance, entitled “Healthcare Respiratory Protection Annual Fit-Testing for N95 Filtering Facepieces During the COVID-19 Outbreak” (“Temporary Guidance”). Although directly applicable only to the healthcare industry, the Temporary Guidance portends what may become the new normal for all industries that require respirator use and that are continuing to operate during the COVID-19 crisis.
In general, the Standard requires employers to provide respirators at the appropriate level of protection when it is necessary to protect employees from workplace inhalation hazards. The Standard also requires such employers to have a written program addressing respirator use, and to implement procedures including for start-up and annual medical evaluation and fit-testing, training, and cleaning of respirators. Through the Temporary Guidance, OSHA Compliance Officers are provided instructions from OSHA headquarters regarding enforcement of the Standard in the healthcare industry in light of the supply shortages of N95 filtering facepiece respirators.
The Temporary Guidance notes that the CDC recommends that healthcare providers who are providing direct care to patients with known or suspected COVID-19 to, among other things, use personal protective equipment (“PPE”), such as respirators. In the Temporary Guidance, OSHA recommends that if N95 respirators are not available, healthcare employers should provide a respirator of “equal or higher protection,” e.g. N99 or N100 filtering facepieces, reusable elastomeric respirators, or powered air purifying respirators. In addition, to conserve resources, OSHA recommends that fit-testing of filtering facepiece respirators continue, but that employers use a qualitative, non-destructive method, rather than a quantitative, destructive method for fit-testing. The CDC has its own guidelines regarding what healthcare workers should do when they are facing a shortage of N95 respirators.
With respect to enforcement, OSHA directed all offices to “exercise enforcement discretion” concerning the annual fit-testing requirement, 29 CFR § 1910.134(f)(2), if employers take other actions to mitigate risks to employees, including:
Other requirements that OSHA is relying on to mitigate risk and avoid non-compliance are listed in the Temporary Guidance.