August 20, 2021Client Alert

What Farms and Food Processors Should Know About OSHA’s Revised COVID-19 Guidance

On August 17, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) issued revised non-healthcare employer guidance on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. In addition to general guidance for all non-healthcare employers, the guidance includes specific recommendations for targeted industries, including agriculture and food processing.

OSHA’s guidance for all non-healthcare employers includes revised directives on masks and vaccination, reflecting the agency’s evolving approach to the pandemic in the face of changing CDC guidance, increasing COVID-19 cases, and the Delta variant.

There were three primary changes to OSHA’s approach applicable to all non-healthcare employers:

  1. Masks for vaccinated individuals in indoor spaces if the work location is in an area of substantial or high transmission of COVID-19 – previously OSHA had said only unvaccinated individuals needed to mask.
  2. Masking and testing for vaccinated individuals who have had close contact – previously OSHA was not recommending these special precautions for vaccinated workers, but the Delta Variant and breakthrough infections among the vaccinated have prompted greater caution.
  3. Employer mandatory vaccines or regular testing – previously OSHA had recommended employers encourage employees to be vaccinated and provide opportunities to get vaccines and testing. Now OSHA is suggesting employers consider mandates.

Read more about OSHA’s revised general guidance to non-healthcare employers here.

Targeted Practices for the Agriculture and Food Processing Industries

In addition to the general guidance summarized above, OSHA’s guidance includes additional specific recommendations for higher-risk workplaces with unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers. Among the targeted industries is agriculture, including farms, and food processing. OSHA’s guidance recommends the following additional precautions be considered in these settings:

  • Stagger break times or provide temporary break areas and restrooms to avoid groups of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers congregating during breaks.
  • Stagger workers’ arrival and departure times to avoid congregations of unvaccinated or at-risk individuals in parking areas, locker rooms, and near time clocks.
  • Provide visual cues (e.g. floor markings, signs) as a reminder to maintain physical distancing.
  • Require unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers, and also fully vaccinated workers, in areas of substantial or high community transmission to wear masks whenever possible; encourage and consider customers and other visitors to do the same.
  • Implement strategies (tailored to your workplace) to improve ventilation that protects workers as outlined in CDC's Ventilation in Buildings and in the OSHA Alert: COVID-19 Guidance on Ventilation in the Workplace, and ASHRAE Guidance for Building Operations and Ventilation for Industrial Settings During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation in the facility, or if feasible, move work outdoors.
  • Space such workers out, ideally at least 6 feet apart, and ensure that such workers are not working directly across from one another. Barriers are not a replacement for worker use of face coverings and physical distancing.
  • If barriers are used where physical distancing cannot be maintained, they should be made of a solid, impermeable material, like plastic or acrylic, that can be easily cleaned or replaced. Barriers should block face-to-face pathways and should not flap or otherwise move out of position when they are being used.
  • Barriers do not replace the need for physical distancing – at least six feet of separation should be maintained between unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk individuals whenever possible.

In determining which additional steps should be taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, OSHA recommends that employers take into consideration specific environmental factors that may influence the transmission of COVID-19. These include close contact between workers (e.g., in a production or assembly line environment), the duration of contact (e.g., prolonged closeness over a shift), and type of contact (e.g., within poorly ventilated spaces). Employers should also consider other “distinctive factors” that may increase risk. Relevant to farms and food processors, OSHA highlighted employer-provided transportation (like ride-share vans or shuttle vehicles) and communal housing or living quarters as examples of such distinctive factors.

While these OSHA guidelines are advisory and not mandatory in nature, they are backed by the general duty clause of the OSH Act—meaning employers could be issued citations if they fail to take appropriate precautions.

For questions regarding the new OSHA guidance and policy development, please contact Chuck Palmer or Denise Greathouse.

back to top