By Brad Sant, senior vice president of safety & education, ARTBA.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidance to help employers better understand the agency’s workplace Respiratory Protection standard during the COVID-19 pandemic. It explains how OSHA compliance officers are directed to respond when employers are unable to comply with the standard. This includes:

  • Enforcement discretion when circumstances beyond the employer’s control prevent compliance with certain parts of the standard and the employer makes objectively reasonable efforts to obtain and conserve supplies.
  • Employer duties to explore options and modify practices to assure the best available protection for workers, especially when performing high-hazard procedures.
  • Employer expectations to meet compliance with the standard once fit-testing and other supplies become available.

It is important for employers to understand the temporary enforcement guidance does not offer blanket waivers or compliance exemptions with OSHA standards. Rather, it provides inspectors with enforcement discretion during the pandemic only when they believe an employer has objectively demonstrated reasonable efforts to protect workers.

COVID-19 has significantly increased demand for respirators, particularly N-95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs), as well as fit-testing supplies normally used to protect workers. Early in the pandemic, ARTBA and other construction contractors were asked to donate their supplies of N-95 respirators to medical workers. Shortages of both FFRs and fit-testing supplies have posed challenges for the transportation construction industry. Many employers were forced to use alternative protections that are ordinarily not compliant with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard so their essential operations could continue.

Earlier this year, ARTBA successfully advocated for several temporary enforcement changes in line with this guidance allowing inspectors to exercise enforcement discretion when considering issuing citations.

Additional resources

  • OSHA’s Region 6 Education Centers are offering a free video with guidance on the proper implementation of a respiratory protection program and its relationship to the COVID-19 pandemic. Register to receive the video link and more information.
  • ARTBA’s Online Learning Center has created a free online training course and other resources for workers and employers to operate safely during the pandemic.
  • For more information related to COVID-19 and ARTBA safety resources, contact me.