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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration released an emergency temporary standard (ETS) this week to protect healthcare workers from exposures to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its ensuing illness, COVID-19. OSHA’s latest ETS applies to healthcare workers and emergency responders who likely will interact with, and care for, suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients. The ETS takes effect immediately and employers must achieve compliance with most provisions within 14 days. 

All fire and EMS leaders are strongly encouraged to review the ETS and ensure their agency complies. Many of these infection control procedures likely already are in place in most fire departments. While OSHA does claim to use its enforcement discretion for employers exercising “good faith effort[s] to comply,” OSHA undoubtedly looks to ensure employers are providing for the health and safety of their personnel. Take steps now to ensure you do not receive any penalties from OSHA. 

To maintain compliance with the ETS’ provisions, fire and EMS agencies must develop COVID-19 plans and policies to address the following topics:

Development of COVID-19 Plan: Employers must develop a plan to address a variety of considerations including designating a COVID-19 safety coordinator, identifying specific workplace hazards, including non-managerial employees in hazard assessment, and developing other policies to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 to employees. Employers with more than 10 employees must place this plan in writing. 

Health Screening and Management of Employees: Employees must be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before each shift. Any employees with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 must not report to work or be removed from work if they develop symptoms while on-shift. Employers with 10 or more employees must provide their personnel their usual benefits and some or all their normal salary when they are unable to work due to a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. The amount of salary provided to an employee is based on a sliding scale depending on the number of employees. All employers must provide their personnel with 4 paid hours of leave to receive each COVID vaccine dose and up to 8 hours of leave per dose if the employee experiences any side effects from the vaccine. 

Patient Screening and Management: Employers must develop policies to restrict physical points-of-entry into areas where patient care is being provided and screen all patients, visitors, and non-employees for COVID-19 symptoms. Employers must develop patient management policies for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients. Employer’s policies must limit the number of healthcare personnel present when aerosol-generating procedures are performed. 

Infection Control Precautions: Employers must implement infection control procedures including both standard precautions (such as handy hygiene, use of appropriate PPE, and safe injection practices) and transmission-based precautions which are more rigorous and focused on containing COVID-19 through contact, droplet, and airborne precautions. OSHA also is requiring that employers ensure healthcare personnel have appropriate PPE including facemasks and respirators when treating suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients. Employers also must ensure people remain at least six feet apart when indoors and that physical barriers are in place in non-patient care areas when social distancing is not possible. 

Cleaning and Ventilation: Employers must follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for cleaning patient care areas, resident rooms, medical equipment, and high-touch surfaces. Employees must also have access to either handwashing facilities or hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol. HVAC systems in employer-owned facilities must have a rating of MERV 13 or higher. 

In addition to the ETS guidance itself, OSHA also has released other documents including an FAQ guide, factsheet, and flow chart to determine if the ETS applies to an employer. While OSHA’s ETS clearly states that it does apply to emergency responders and EMS personnel, there is not a clear definition of “employee” or “healthcare professional” and whether these terms include volunteer fire and EMS personnel. There may be variations in state laws that impact the applicability of this ETS to volunteer fire and EMS personnel. Volunteer and combination chiefs are encouraged consult a local attorney to determine if their volunteer personnel are included in the ETS. 

The IAFC will continue to analyze this latest ETS from OSHA and hopes to make more information available soon. 

Evan Davis is a strategic government relations manager for the IAFC

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