OSHA Urges Restaurants To Minimize Contact In New Alert

By Braden Campbell
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Law360 (May 1, 2020, 2:43 PM EDT) -- Restaurants providing curbside and takeout service during the pandemic should reserve parking spaces near the front door for pickup, avoid handing food off directly when possible and allow workers to wear masks, the U.S. Department of Labor's workplace safety arm recommended in new guidance Friday.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration included these and other recommendations in a new safety alert for restaurant and food and beverage businesses. The agency issued the tips in a one-page poster employers can display in the workplace.

The agency also urged businesses to put up signs detailing their services, pickup instructions and hours; take "sensible social distancing" measures such as marking 6-foot distances in tape, moving workstations or installing plexiglass partitions; provide alcohol-based hand rubs and a place to wash hands; and encourage workers to report safety and health concerns. Businesses that do not follow OSHA's recommendations will not necessarily face fines, however.

The alert is the latest in a series of industry-specific guidance documents the agency has issued recommending businesses implement certain measures to protect workers and patrons during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 26, OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued joint guidance for the meatpacking industry, which has emerged as a flashpoint as large numbers of workers fall ill at some facilities. The agencies urged meatpacking plants to reconfigure their facilities to keep workers at least six feet apart, appoint monitors to ensure workers are maintaining distance and stagger workers' break times so they don't crowd common areas, among other recommendations.

The agency has also released one-page alerts for businesses in the retail, package delivery, construction and manufacturing industries making similar recommendations to those in Friday's food service guidance.

OSHA, which fields and investigates worker complaints of unsafe conditions, has faced stiff criticism from union leaders and other workers' advocates for issuing nonbinding guidance rather than enacting a temporary emergency standard that would force businesses to adopt specific protective measures or face fines. The agency has also taken heat for a pandemic enforcement plan that prescribes in-person site inspections of medical facilities and certain other high-risk settings, but directs investigators to handle most other probes by phone.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka slammed this response as "woefully inadequate" Tuesday in a letter to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, who oversees OSHA and other offices within the DOL. Trumka, whose labor federation comprises dozens of national unions, said the agency's failure to issue a safety mandate and reluctance to inspect employers in lower-risk industries will cost workers' lives.

Scalia said Trumka undersold his agency's efforts in a response Thursday, accusing the labor leader and other critics of putting workers at risk by suggesting "OSHA is indifferent to worker protection and enforcement" and misleading "employers about their duties and workers about their rights." He said employers that don't take steps to protect workers "are likely violating existing OSHA obligations" and that the agency will take action under a general safety mandate and rules regarding protective equipment, sanitation and hazard communications.

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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