Are Your Retail Workers Ready to Return to Work? OSHA Releases New Guidance

Although COVID-19 continues to disrupt the daily lives of American workers, employers are beginning to plan for a possible return to work. This includes retailers, which have been particularly impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic with a widespread shutdown of stores.  Now, OSHA has released specific guidelines for keeping retail workers safe.

Previously, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) had provided guidance on preparing workplaces for COVID-19 that addressed retail employees, among other categories of workers. This guidance classified retail workers as having a “medium risk” level of occupational exposure, due to retail workers’ frequent contact with the general public. The CDC recommended that medium risk workplaces should: consider providing their employees with masks, keep customers informed about the symptoms of COVID-19, limit public access to the worksite where appropriate, consider minimizing face-to-face contact (e.g., drive-through windows, installing plastic cashier barriers), and communicate the availability of medical screening or other worker health resources.

OSHA’s newly issued retail-specific guidelines take it a step further.  These guidelines cover recommended sanitization practices, face coverings and social distancing measures. OSHA guidelines (as opposed to OSHA standards or regulations) are voluntary recommendations for compliance with general workplace safety and training initiatives. However, employers should still pay close attention to them because failure to follow them may lead to increased legal risk, including OSHA investigations, whistleblower claims and wrongful termination claims. We have previously covered ways to minimize OSHA COVID-19 liability here.

OSHA is now recommending that retailers take the following safety precautions:

  • Encourage workers to stay home if they are sick.
  • Provide a place to wash hands or alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol.
  • Maintain regular housekeeping practices, including routine cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces and equipment with Environmental Protection Agency-approved cleaning chemicals from List N or that have label claims against the coronavirus.
  • Practice sensible social distancing, maintaining six feet between co-workers and customers, where possible. For example, some worksites have already begun to demarcate six-foot distances with floor tape in checkout lines. Workplaces where social distancing is a challenge should consider innovative approaches, such as opening only every other cash register, temporarily moving workstations to create more distance, and installing plexiglass partitions.
  • Use a drive-through window or curbside pick-up.
  • Provide workers and customers with tissues and trash receptacles.
  • Train workers in proper hygiene practices and the use of workplace controls.
  • Allow workers to wear masks over their nose and mouth to prevent them from spreading the virus.
  • Encourage workers to report any safety and health concerns.

OSHA also encourages employers to follow CDC guidelines as well as their own state and local laws, which may mandate additional and more stringent health and safety protocols and are being updated regularly. For example, California OSHA has released its own guidance on preventing infections for grocery retail workers. This guidance contains additional safety measures such as staggering lunch break times and encouraging contactless payment methods.

As the country reopens, it is important that employers stay abreast of federal, state and local guidance on keeping their workplace safe. This is especially prudent for retailers, whose workers are in regular contact with the general public.  Retail employers should be actively working to apply these guidelines to their workplace to the extent possible.

We are continuing to monitor the myriad developments related to workplace safety.  Please stay tuned for updates.