OSHA Urges Nursing Homes To Screen For Virus Symptoms

By Braden Campbell
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Law360 (May 14, 2020, 9:41 PM EDT) -- Nursing homes and long-term care facilities should regularly screen workers and residents for coronavirus symptoms and closely monitor them if they're exposed, the U.S. Department of Labor's workplace safety office said Thursday in one of three new safety alerts.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also issued recommendations for retail pharmacies and taxi and ride-hailing companies, building on a trove of one-page guidance sheets aimed at employers in specific industries.

The nursing home one-pager also urges such employers to take several other precautions, including asking visitors to report back if they develop symptoms within two weeks of their visit; keeping 6 feet of distance between workers, residents and visitors "to the extent possible"; and staggering break periods so workers don't overcrowd break rooms. These employers should also "consider alternatives to in-person large group gatherings" such as staff meetings and resident activities; monitor personal protective equipment supplies and develop a reuse process; and encourage workers to report health and safety concerns, OSHA said.

The guidance for ride-hailing, taxi and car service companies recommends they make alcohol-based hand sanitizer available to drivers and install plexiglass partitions between drivers and passengers "where possible." OSHA also recommends limiting passenger numbers, routinely cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, lowering windows to increase airflow and asking drivers to report concerns.

The retail pharmacy guidance likewise makes several recommendations for protecting workers and customers from the virus. OSHA's suggestions include having customers submit prescriptions online or over the phone, increasing the use of self-service checkouts, and frequently disinfecting checkout and customer service counters. Pharmacies should also install barriers at counters, mark 6-foot distances for waiting customers and have workers report concerns.

The agency has made similar recommendations in previous alerts to businesses in the package delivery, construction and dentistry industries, among others.

The new advice continues OSHA's practice of issuing recommendations, rather than formal rules that make employers follow certain standards or face fines. That approach has drawn criticism from workers' advocates, who have urged the agency to issue emergency safety standards during the pandemic.

The agency has so far rebuffed those calls, but momentum may be building for formal rules as Republicans seek legislation shielding businesses from civil liability during the crisis. Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed at a hearing Tuesday that the federal government should issue enforceable standards before Congress protects businesses.

Meanwhile, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia has pushed back at the notion the agency has not done enough to protect workers. While it hasn't issued formal rules, the agency can take action against reckless employers under Occupational Safety and Health Act provisions imposing a general duty to protect workers, he said in a letter to the head of the AFL-CIO last month. 

--Additional reporting by Y. Peter Kang and Kevin Stawicki. Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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