WHAT IS CORONAVIRUS DISEASE (COVID-19)
COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is a respiratory distress disease caused by a new (novel) coronavirus that has not been previously seen in humans. Coronaviruses are a class of viruses sometimes associated with colds. This virus, however, is extremely dangerous for two main reasons. First, it is new and therefore hasn’t been exposed in humans. Since our immune systems have little way of identifying the virus it can cause great infection before the host shows symptoms. Secondly, the virus is extremely specific to receptors only found on lung cells. This enhances efficacy and causes a disease called acute respiratory distress syndrome in many people.
WHO IS AT RISK OF CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19)?
The virus is highly contagious and is transmitted primary by airborne means, meaning by coughing, sneezing or breathing. The virus has the ability to stay suspended in the air for up to three hours according to the Centers for Disease Control. It may persist on other inert surfaces for variable periods of time, also. Contact with the virus on surfaces can be a source of infection is the virus eventually is introduced to parts of the face such as the nose, mouth or eyes. Statistically, individuals over the age of 60 with any underlying medical issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, lung disease etc) are the most at risk. Individuals that have a compromised immune system are vulnerable, such as those that might have just gotten over the flu, pneumonia or other infection or those undergoing cancer treatments. However, the virus has killed people of all ages.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY OF PROTECTING MYSELF?
Exceptionally dangerous is the fact that people can actually be infected with the coronavirus without suffering symptoms for up to 14 days. Some may experience nothing more than a cough and minor flu-like symptoms. However, that doesn’t make them LESS of a carrier. The most effective control is to isolate those WITH infection from those WITHOUT. However, because those that are infected may not know it, the rate of infection can be significant.
Because of the highly infectious nature of the virus, most states and communities have issued general guidance on social distancing and quarantining. Those at the highest risk mentioned above, should quarantine and avoid any contact with anyone that might be a carrier. Those that have symptoms should self-quarantine for at least 14 days. If you feel you might have been around someone that WAS infected, you should also self-quarantine for two weeks. In addition, the CDC recommends the following everyday preventative actions:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Stay at home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household spray or wipe/
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (minimum alcohol of 60%).
DO OSHA STNDARDS HAVE ANY APPLICABILITY IN A PANDEMIC
While there is no specific OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standard covering COVID-19, some OSHA requirements may apply to preventing occupational exposure to the coronavirus. These are specific areas of the CFR standards that apply for other basic safety and health considerations.
For instance, OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards in general industry, 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I, which require using gloves, eye and face protection and respiratory protection can apply. When respirators are necessary to protect workers in vulnerable areas, employers must implement a comprehensive respiratory program in accordance with the Respiratory Protection standard (see 29 CFR 1910.134). OSHA has issued temporary guidance related to enforcement of respirator annual fit-testing requirements for healthcare.
As usual, the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, 29 USC 654(a)(1), which requires employers to furnish to each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
Perhaps more pointedly, OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens standard (see 29 CFR 1910.1030) applies to occupational exposure to human blood and other potentially infectious materials that typically do not include respiratory secretions that may transmit the coronavirus. However, the provisions of the standard offer a framework that may help control some sources of the virus, including exposures to body fluids (i.e. respiratory secretions) not specifically covered by the standard. Other important standards that may apply are 29 CFR 1910 Subpart J (General Environmental controls, such as sanitation, Subpart Z (Toxic and Hazardous Substances).
Companies also have a mandated responsibility under 29 CFR Part 1904 Subpart C which dictates the record keeping requirements of covered employees and their work-related injuries and illnesses in their OSHA 300 log. COVID-19 (Coronavirus) can be a recordable illness if as worker is infected as a result of performing their work-related duties. However, employers are only responsible for recording these cases if all of the following criteria are met:
- The case is a confirmed case of COVID-19,
- The case is work-related as defined by 29 CFR 1904.5,
- The case involves one or more of the general recording criteria set forth in 29 CFR 1904.7 (i.e. medical treatment beyond first-aid, days away from work).
Generally. HAZWOPER regulations would not apply except under extraordinary circumstances involving an emergency response operation (see 29 CFR 1910.120(q). These operations can occur at public or private facilities (i.e. hospitals, clinics, etc), research laboratories, universities, chemical facilities, or any other location with the potential for accidental releases of hazardous substances. Any work to contain and control such a substance on an emergency basis is regulated under the HAZWOPER standard.