This guidance is intended to help employers and workers not covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA's) COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to identify COVID-19 exposure risks to workers who are unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk, and to help them take appropriate steps to prevent exposure and infection. See Text Box: Who Are At-Risk Workers?
CDC's Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People explain that under most circumstances, fully vaccinated people need not take all the precautions that unvaccinated people should take. For example, CDC advises that most fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. People are considered fully vaccinated for COVID-19 two weeks or more after they have completed their final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the United States. However, CDC suggests that people who are fully vaccinated but still at-risk due to immunocompromising conditions should discuss the need for additional protections with their healthcare providers. CDC continues to recommend precautions for workers in certain transportation settings.
Unless otherwise required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their fully vaccinated workers who are not otherwise at-risk from COVID-19 exposure. This guidance focuses only on protecting unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in their workplaces (or well-defined portions of workplaces).1
This guidance contains recommendations as well as descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards, the latter of which are clearly labeled throughout as "mandatory OSHA standards." The recommendations are advisory in nature and informational in content, and are intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace free from recognizedhazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
Who Are "At-Risk Workers"?
Some conditions, such as a prior transplant, as well as prolonged use of corticosteroids or other immune-weakening medications, may affect workers' ability to have a full immune response to vaccination. See the CDC's page describing Vaccines for People with Underlying Medical Conditions, and further definition of People with Certain Medical Conditions. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), workers with disabilities may be legally entitled to reasonable accommodations that protect them from the risk of contracting COVID-19 if, for example, they cannot be protected through vaccination, cannot get vaccinated, or cannot use face coverings. Employers should consider taking steps to protect these at-risk workers as they would unvaccinated workers, regardless of their vaccination status.
COVID-19 and Prevention
COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease that is spread from person to person, including through aerosol transmission of particles produced when an infected person exhales, talks, vocalizes, sneezes, or coughs. COVID-19 is highly transmissible and can be spread by people who have no symptoms. Particles containing the virus can travel more than 6 feet, especially indoors and in dry conditions (relative humidity below 40%), and can be spread by individuals who do not know they are infected.
Vaccines authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the United States are highly effective at protecting most fully vaccinated people against symptomatic and severe COVID-19, and OSHA encourages employers to take steps to make it easier for workers to get vaccinated. However, for workers who are unvaccinated or who are otherwise at-risk, OSHA recommends implementing multiple layers of controls. Key controls to help protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers include separating from the workplace all infected people, all people experiencing COVID symptoms, and any unvaccinated people who have had a close contact with someone with COVID-19, implementing physical distancing, maintaining ventilation systems, and properly using face coverings or personal protective equipment (PPE) when appropriate.
Finally, OSHA provides employers with specific guidance for environments at a higher risk for exposure to or spread of COVID-19, primarily workplaces where unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers are more likely to be in prolonged, close contact with other workers or the public.
OSHA provides this guidance for employers as recommendations to use in protecting unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers. Employers and workers should use this guidance to determine any appropriate control measures to implement.
While this guidance addresses many workplaces, many healthcare workplace settings will be covered by the mandatory OSHA COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard. Pursuant to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (the OSH Act or the Act), employers must comply with safety and health standards and regulations issued and enforced either by OSHA or by an OSHA-approved state plan. In addition, the Act's General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1), requires employers to provide their workers with a safe and healthful workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
This guidance is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations. It contains recommendations as well as descriptions of existing mandatory OSHA standards, the latter of which are clearly labeled throughout. The recommendations are advisory in nature and informational in content, and are intended to assist employers in recognizing and abating hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm as part of their obligation to provide a safe and healthful workplace.
COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease that is spread from person to person, including through aerosol transmission ofparticles produced when an infected person exhales, talks, vocalizes, sneezes, or coughs. COVID-19 is less commonly transmitted when people touch a contaminated object and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth. The virus that causes COVID-19 is highly transmissible and can be spread by people who have no symptoms and who do not know they are infected. Particles containing the virus can travel more than 6 feet, especially indoors and in dry conditions with relative humidity below 40%. The CDC estimates that over fifty percent of the spread of the virus is from individuals with no symptoms at the time of spread.
More information on COVID-19 is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What Workers Need To Know about COVID-19 Protections in the Workplace
Vaccination is the key in a multi-layered approach to protect workers. Learn about and take advantage of opportunities that your employer may provide to take time off to get vaccinated. Vaccines authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are highly effective at protecting vaccinated people against symptomatic and severe COVID-19 illness.According to the CDC, a growing body of evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people are less likely to have symptomatic infection or transmit the virus to others. See CDC's Guidance for Fully Vaccinated People.
If you are unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk (e.g., because of a prior transplant or other medical condition), you should follow recommended precautions and policies at your workplace. Many employers have established COVID-19 prevention programs that include a number of important steps to keep unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers safe. These COVID-19 prevention programs include measures such as telework and flexible schedules, enhanced cleaning programs with a focus on high-touch surfaces, engineering controls (e.g., ventilation), administrative policies (e.g., vaccination policies), personal protective equipment (PPE), face coverings, and physical distancing. Ask your employer about plans in your workplace. In addition, employees with disabilities who are at-risk may request reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Even if your employer does not have a COVID-19 prevention program, if you are unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk, you can help protect yourself by following the steps listed below:
- Identify opportunities to get vaccinated. Ask your employer about opportunities for paid leave, if necessary, to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects.
- Properly wear a face covering over your nose and mouth. Face coverings are simple barriers worn over the face, nose and chin. They work to help prevent your respiratory droplets or large particles from reaching others. If they are of high enough quality, they also provide a measure of protection to the people wearing them. CDC provides general guidance on masks. If you are working outdoors you may opt not to wear face coverings in many circumstances; however, you should be supported in safely continuing face covering use if you choose, especially if you work closely with other people.
- Stay far enough away from other people so that you are not breathing in particles produced by them – generally at least 6 feet (about 2 arm lengths), although this approach by itself is not a guarantee that you will avoid infection, especially in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces. Ask your employer about possible telework and flexible schedule options at your workplace, and take advantage of such policies if possible. Perform work tasks, hold meetings, and take breaks outdoors when possible.
- Participate in any training offered by your employer/building manager to learn how rooms are ventilated effectively and notify the building manager if you see vents that are clogged, dirty, or blocked by furniture or equipment.
- Practice good personal hygiene and wash your hands often. Always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue, or the inside of your elbow, when you cough or sneeze, and do not spit. Monitor your health daily and be alert for COVID-19 symptoms (e.g., fever, cough, or shortness of breath). See CDC's Personal & Social Activities Guidance for Unvaccinated People.
COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at keeping you from getting COVID-19. If you are not yet fully vaccinated, or are otherwise at risk, optimum protection is provided by using multiple layers of other interventions that prevent exposure and infection.
The Roles of Employers and Workers in Responding to COVID-19
Under the OSH Act, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
CDC's Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People are directed at individuals and explains that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. See CDC's Exceptions to COVID-19 Recommended Precautions for Fully Vaccinated People.
Except for workplace settings covered by OSHA's ETS and mask requirements for public transportation, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their workers from COVID-19 exposure in any workplace, or well-defined portions of a workplace, where all employees are fully vaccinated. Employers should still take steps to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in their workplaces, or well-defined portions of workplaces. 2
Employers should engage with workers and their representatives to determine how to implement multi-layered interventions to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including:
Grant paid time off for employees to get vaccinated. The Department of Labor and OSHA, as well as other federal agencies, are working diligently to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccinations. CDC provides information on the benefits and safety of vaccinations. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees may be eligible for tax credits under the American Rescue Plan if they provide paid time off for employees who decide to receive the vaccine and to recover from any potential side effects from the vaccine.
Instruct any workers who are infected, unvaccinated workers who have had close contact with someone who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, and all workers with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home from work to prevent or reduce the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. Ensure that absence policies are non-punitive. Eliminate or revise policies that encourage workers to come to work sick or when unvaccinated workers have been exposed to COVID-19. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees may be eligible for refundable tax credits under the American Rescue Plan if they provide paid time off for sick and family leave to their employees due to COVID-19 related reasons. The ARP tax credits are available to eligible employers that pay sick and family leave for qualified leave from April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. More information is available from the IRS.
Implement physical distancing for unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers in all communal work areas. A key way to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers is to physically distance them from other unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk people (workers or customers) – generally at least 6 feet of distance is recommended, although this is not a guarantee of safety, especially in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces.
Employers could also limit the number of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in one place at any given time, for example by implementing flexible worksites (e.g., telework); implementing flexible work hours (e.g., rotate or stagger shifts to limit the number of such workers in the workplace at the same time); delivering services remotely (e.g., phone, video, or web); or implementing flexible meeting and travel options, all for such workers.
At fixed workstations where unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers are not able to remain at least 6 feet away from other people, transparent shields or other solid barriers (e.g., fire resistant plastic sheeting or flexible strip curtains) can separate these workers from other people. Barriers should block face-to-face pathways between individuals in order to prevent direct transmission of respiratory droplets, and any openings should be placed at the bottom and made as small as possible. The posture (sitting or standing) of users and the safety of the work environment should be considered when designing and installing barriers, as should the need for enhanced ventilation.
Provide unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers with face coverings or surgical masks, unless their work task requires a respirator or other PPE. Such workers should wear a face covering that covers the nose and mouth to contain the wearer's respiratory droplets and help protect others and potentially themselves. Face coverings should be made of at least two layers of a tightly woven breathable fabric, such as cotton, and should not have exhalation valves or vents. They should fit snugly over the nose, mouth, and chin with no large gaps on the outside of the face. CDC provides general guidance on masks.
Employers should provide face coverings to unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers at no cost. Under federal anti-discrimination laws, employers may need to provide reasonable accommodation for any workers who are unable to wear or have difficulty wearing certain types of face coverings due to a disability or who need a religious accommodation under Title VII. In workplaces with employees who are deaf or hard of hearing, employers should consider acquiring masks with clear coverings over the mouth for unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers to facilitate lip-reading.
Unless otherwise provided by federal, state, or local requirements, unvaccinated workers who are outdoors may opt not to wear face coverings unless they are at-risk, for example, if they are immunocompromised. Regardless, all workers should be supported in continuing face covering use if they choose, especially in order to safely work closely with other people.
When an employer determines that PPE is necessary to protect unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers, the employer must provide PPE in accordance with relevant mandatory OSHA standards and should consider providing PPE in accordance with other industry-specific guidance. Respirators, if necessary, must be provided and used in compliance with 29 CFR 1910.134 (e.g., medical determination, fit testing, training on its correct use), including certain provisions for voluntary use when workers supply their own respirators, and other PPE must be provided and used in accordance with the applicable standards in 29 CFR 1910, Subpart I (e.g., 1910.132 and 133). There are times when PPE is not called for by OSHA standards or other industry-specific guidance, but some workers may have a legal right to PPE as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Employers are encouraged to proactively inform employees who have a legal right to PPE as a reasonable accommodation for their disability about how to make such a request. Other workers may want to use PPE if they are still concerned about their personal safety (e.g., if a family member is at higher-risk for severe illness, they may want to wear a face shield in addition to a face covering as an added layer of protection). Encourage and support voluntary use of PPE in these circumstances and ensure the equipment is adequate to protect the worker.
For operations where the face covering can become wet and soiled, provide unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers with replacements daily or more frequently, as needed. Face shields may be provided for use with face coverings to protect them from getting wet and soiled, but they do not provide protection by themselves. See CDC's Guide to Masks.
Employers with workers in a setting where face coverings may increase the risk of heat-related illness indoors or outdoors or cause safety concerns due to introduction of a hazard (for instance, straps getting caught in machinery) may wish to consult with an occupational safety and health professional to help determine the appropriate face covering/respirator use for their setting.
Educate and train workers on your COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in language they understand. Train managers on how to implement COVID-19 policies. Communicate supportive workplace policies clearly, frequently, and via multiple methods to promote a safe and healthy workplace. Communications should be in plain language that unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers understand (including non-English languages, and American Sign Language or other accessible communication methods, if applicable) and in a manner accessible to individuals with disabilities. Training should be directed at employees, contractors, and any other individuals on site, as appropriate, and should include:
- Basic facts about COVID-19, including how it is spread and the importance of physical distancing (including remote work), ventilation, vaccination, use of face coverings, and hand hygiene.
Workplace policies and procedures implemented to protect workers from COVID-19 hazards.
For basic facts, see About COVID-19 and What Workers Need to Know About COVID-19, above and see more on vaccinations, improving ventilation, physical distancing (including remote work), PPE, and face coverings, respectively, elsewhere in this document. Some means of tracking which workers have received this information, and when, could be utilized, by the employer, as appropriate.
In addition, ensure that workers understand their rights to a safe and healthful work environment, whom to contact with questions or concerns about workplace safety and health, and their right to raise workplace safety and health concerns free from retaliation. This information should also be provided in a language that workers understand. (See Implementing Protections from Retaliation, below.) Ensure supervisors are familiar with workplace flexibilities and other human resources policies and procedures.
Suggest that unvaccinated customers, visitors, or guests wear face coverings, especially in public-facing workplaces such as retail establishments, if there are unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in the workplace who are likely to interact with these customers, visitors, or guests. This could include posting a notice or otherwise suggesting unvaccinated people wear face coverings, even if no longer required by your jurisdiction. Individuals who are under the age of 2 or are actively consuming food or beverages on site need not wear face coverings.
Maintain Ventilation Systems. The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads between people more readily indoors than outdoors. Improving ventilation is a key engineering control that can be used as part of a layered strategy to reduce the concentration of viral particles in indoor air and the risk of virus transmission to unvaccinated workers in particular. Some measures to improve ventilation are discussed in CDC's Ventilation in Buildings and in the OSHA Alert: COVID-19 Guidance on Ventilation in the Workplace. These recommendations are based on ASHRAE Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Adequate ventilation will protect all people in a closed space. Key measures include ensuring the HVAC system(s) is operating in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions and design specifications, conducting all regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance procedures, maximizing the amount of outside air supplied, installing air filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 13 or higher where feasible, maximizing natural ventilation in buildings without HVAC systems by opening windows or doors, when conditions allow (if that does not pose a safety risk), and considering the use of portable air cleaners with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in spaces with high occupancy or limited ventilation.
Perform routine cleaning and disinfection. If someone who has been in the facility within 24 hours is suspected of having or confirmed to have COVID-19, follow the CDC cleaning and disinfection recommendations. Follow requirements in mandatory OSHA standards 29 CFR 1910.1200 and 1910.132, 133, and 138 for hazard communication and PPE appropriate for exposure to cleaning chemicals.
Record and report COVID-19 infections and deaths: Under mandatory OSHA rules in 29 CFR 1904, employers are responsible for recording work-related cases of COVID-19 illness on OSHA's Form 300 logs if the following requirements are met: (1) the case is a confirmed case of COVID-19; (2) the case is work-related (as defined by 29 CFR 1904.5); and (3) the case involves one or more relevant recording criteria (set forth in 29 CFR 1904.7) (e.g., medical treatment, days away from work). Employers must follow the requirements in 29 CFR 1904 when reporting COVID-19 fatalities and hospitalizations to OSHA. More information is available on OSHA's website. Employers should also report outbreaks to health departments as required and support their contact tracing efforts.
In addition, employers should be aware that Section 11(c) of the Act prohibits reprisal or discrimination against an employee for speaking out about unsafe working conditions or reporting an infection or exposure to COVID-19 to an employer. In addition, mandatory OSHA standard 29 CFR 1904.35(b) also prohibits discrimination against an employee for reporting a work-related illness.
Note on recording adverse reactions to vaccines: DOL and OSHA, as well as other federal agencies, are working diligently to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations. OSHA does not want to give any suggestion of discouraging workers from receiving COVID-19 vaccination or to disincentivize employers' vaccination efforts. As a result, OSHA will not enforce 29 CFR 1904's recording requirements to require any employers to record worker side effects from COVID-19 vaccination through May 2022. OSHA will reevaluate the agency's position at that time to determine the best course of action moving forward. Individuals may choose to submit adverse reactions to the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.
Implement protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to voice concerns about COVID-19-related hazards: Section 11(c) of the OSH Act prohibits discharging or in any other way discriminating against an employee for engaging in various occupational safety and health activities. Examples of violations of Section 11(c) could include discriminating against employees for raising a reasonable concern about infection control related to COVID-19 to the employer, the employer's agent, other employees, a government agency, or to the public, such as through print, online, social, or any other media; or against an employee for voluntarily providing and safely wearing their own PPE, such as a respirator, face shield, gloves, or surgical mask.
In addition to notifying workers of their rights to a safe and healthful work environment, ensure that workers know whom to contact with questions or concerns about workplace safety and health, and that there are prohibitions against retaliation for raising workplace safety and health concerns or engaging in other protected occupational safety and health activities (see educating and training workers about COVID-19 policies and procedures, above); also consider using a hotline or other method for workers to voice concerns anonymously.
- Follow other applicable mandatory OSHA standards: All of OSHA's standards that apply to protecting workers from infection remain in place. These mandatory OSHA standards include: requirements for PPE (29 CFR 1910, Subpart I (e.g., 1910.132 and 133)), respiratory protection (29 CFR 1910.134), sanitation (29 CFR 1910.141), protection from bloodborne pathogens: (29 CFR 1910.1030), and OSHA's requirements for employee access to medical and exposure records (29 CFR 1910.1020). Many healthcare workplaces will be covered by the mandatory OSHA COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard. More information on that standard is available on the OSHA website at [link]. Where the ETS does not apply, employers are required under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, to provide a safe and healthful workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm .
Appendix: Measures Appropriate for Higher-Risk Workplaces with Mixed-Vaccination Status Workers
Employers should take additional steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 for unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers in workplaces where there is heightened risk due to the following types of factors:
Close contact– where unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers are working close to one another, for example, on production or assembly lines. Such workers may also be near one another at other times, such as when clocking in or out, during breaks, or in locker/changing rooms.
Duration of contact – where unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers often have prolonged closeness to coworkers (e.g., for 8–12 hours per shift). Continued contact with potentially infectious individuals increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.
Type of contact – unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers who may be exposed to the infectious virus through respiratory droplets in the air—for example, when unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in a manufacturing or factory setting who have the virus cough or sneeze. It is also possible that exposure could occur from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as tools, workstations, or break room tables. Shared spaces such as break rooms, locker rooms, and entrances/exits to the facility may contribute to their risk.
Other distinctive factors that may increase risk among these unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers include:
- A common practice at some workplaces of sharing employer-provided transportation such as ride-share vans or shuttle vehicles;
- Frequent contact with other unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk individuals in community settings in areas where there is elevated community transmission; and
Communal housing or living quarters onboard vessels with other unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk individuals.
In these types of higher-risk workplaces – which include manufacturing, meat and poultry processing, high-volume retail and grocery, and seafood processing – this Appendix provides best practices to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers. Please note that these recommendations are in addition to those in the general precautions described above, including isolation of infected or possibly infected workers, and other precautions.
In all higher-risk workplaces where there are unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers:
- Stagger break times in these generally high-population workplaces, or provide temporary break areas and restrooms to avoid groups of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers congregating during breaks. Unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers should maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others at all times, including on breaks.
- Stagger workers' arrival and departure times to avoid congregations of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk in parking areas, locker rooms, and near time clocks.
- Provide visual cues (e.g., floor markings, signs) as a reminder to maintain physical distancing.
- 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.
In workplaces (or well-defined work areas) with processing or assembly lines where there are unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers:
- Working on food processing or assembly lines can result in virus exposure because these workplaces have often been designed for a number of workers to stand next to or across from each other to maximize productivity. Proper spacing of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers (or if not possible, appropriate use of barriers) can help reduce the risks for such workers.
In retail workplaces (or well-defined work areas within retail) where there are unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers:
- Suggest masks for unvaccinated (or unknown-status) customers and other visitors.
- Consider means for physical distancing from other people who are not known to be fully vaccinated. If distancing is not possible, consider the use of barriers between work stations used by unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers and the locations customers will stand, with pass-through openings at the bottom, if possible.
- Move the electronic payment terminal/credit card reader farther away from any unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in order to increase the distance between customers and such workers, if possible.
- Shift primary stocking activities of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers to off-peak or after hours when possible to reduce contact between unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers and customers.
Unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers are also at risk when traveling to and from work in employer-provided buses and vans.
- Notify unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers of this risk and, to the extent feasible, help them limit the number of such workers in one vehicle.
- Make sure all unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers sharing a vehicle are wearing appropriate face coverings.