Labor & Employment Law Daily OSHA temporary guidance on respiratory protection for healthcare workers responds to COVID-19 crisis
Wednesday, March 18, 2020

OSHA temporary guidance on respiratory protection for healthcare workers responds to COVID-19 crisis

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The temporary enforcement guidance is effective March 14, 2020, until further notice.

As part of the rapidly developing national response to the coronavirus crisis and the President’s proclamation on March 13 that “the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States constitutes a national emergency,” OSHA has issued new temporary guidance, “Healthcare Respiratory Protection Annual Fit-Testing for N95 Filtering Facepieces During the COVID-19 Outbreak,” concerning enforcement of the health and safety agency’s Respiratory Protection standard.

Respiratory protection for healthcare workers. The temporary guidance is aimed at ensuring that healthcare workers have full access to needed N95 respiratory protection in light of anticipated shortages during the COVID-19 crisis. OSHA recommends that employers supply healthcare personnel who provide direct care to patients with known or suspected coronavirus with other respirators that provide equal or higher protection, such as:

  • N99 or N100 filtering facepieces;
  • Reusable elastomeric respirators with appropriate filters or cartridges; or
  • Powered air purifying respirators.

Shift to qualitative testing. OSHA is also recommending that healthcare employers change from a quantitative fit testing method to a qualitative testing method to preserve the integrity of N95 respirators. OSHA field offices also have discretion not to cite employers for violations of the annual fit testing requirement, provided that those employers:

  • Make a good faith effort to comply with the respiratory protection standard;
  • Use only NIOSH-certified respirators;
  • Implement strategies recommended by OSHA and the CDC for optimizing and prioritizing N95 respirators;
  • Perform initial fit tests for each healthcare employee with the same model, style, and size respirator that the employee will be required to wear for protection from coronavirus;
  • Tell employees that the employer is temporarily suspending the annual fit testing of N95 respirators to preserve the supply for use in situations where they are required to be worn;
  • Explain to employees the importance of conducting a fit check after putting on the respirator to make sure they are getting an adequate seal;
  • Conduct a fit test if they observe visual changes in an employee’s physical condition that could affect respirator fit; and
  • Remind employees to notify management if the integrity or fit of their N95 respirator is compromised.

Effective date. The temporary enforcement guidance is effective beginning March 14, 2020, and will remain in effect until further notice.

“The safety and health of Americans are top priorities for the President,” Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia said in a release. “That’s why the Administration is taking this action to protect America’s healthcare workers. Today’s guidance ensures that healthcare workers have the resources they need to stay safe during the COVID-19 outbreak.”

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