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Workplace Health and Safety

How OSHA Is Helping Spread Knowledge, Not Germs

Loren Sweatt

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

In July 2018, USA Today ran a story titled “Most people don’t wash their hands correctly, USDA study finds.” The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey determined that 97 percent of the time, people were not washing their hands correctly or for long enough. In 2020, The Healthy Hands Study reported an increasing awareness of hand hygiene and habit-forming practices, with 77 percent of respondents saying they wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. 

The Department of Labor is committed to protecting America’s workers during the pandemic and the OSHA has been working around the clock to that end. Since February 1, OSHA inspections alone have helped to ensure more than 643,000 workers are protected from COVID-19. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the agency has provided extensive guidance to employers and workers on preventing exposure to COVID-19. OSHA emphasizes the importance of cleaning, disinfecting, sanitizing, and washing hands in many of its guidance materials, including in guidance for restaurants resuming dine-in services; janitorial cleaning services; manufacturing; meat, poultry, and seafood processing; and agriculture

The agency has also developed videos on handwashing practices to keep workers safe, using the right tools to keep workplaces clean, and good practices for delivery businesses, as well as a series of alerts providing guidance for protecting workers in various industries from exposure to the coronavirus.

The best defense

Proper hygiene protects workers from more than COVID-19. Good hygiene practices at work can help prevent colds, flu outbreaks, and even foodborne illnesses. Workers who simply wash their hands and follow proper hygiene practices are helping keep themselves and their coworkers safe from the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses. 

Good hygiene and cleaning practices are particularly important now, given that it is flu season and the number of COVID-19 cases are rising. Getting the flu shot helps reduce the chances of contracting the flu. Employees who stay home from work when they’re sick — and employers who allow staff to stay home when they’re sick — can play a major role in preventing the spread of disease. The following additional actions can help prevent illness in the workplace: 

Employers

  1. Keep frequently touched surfaces clean: Shared surfaces like counters, door handles, phones, computer keyboards, and touchpads should be cleaned after each use.
  2. Limit shared equipment or clean equipment before others use it: Employers should limit the need for workers to use a co-worker’s phone, desk, office, computer, or other equipment unless they are first cleaned with an EPA-approved disinfectant.
  3. Train and educate: Employers should make sure all workers understand how to stay healthy at work during flu season, including new and temporary workers. 
  4. Consider alternate work arrangements: If possible, employers should offer options like telework or staggered shifts for workers who are considered high-risk for seasonal flu (including older workers, pregnant women, and people with asthma).

Workers

  1. Continue practicing social distancing: Workers should stay at least 6 feet apart from coworkers whenever possible.
  2. Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or upper sleeve: Workers should put tissues into a “no-touch” wastebasket and wash their hands after coughing, sneezing, or blowing their nose. Workers should avoid touching their faces.
  3. Wear a face covering: These can help limit the spread of the coronavirus and flu in the workplace.

OSHA has numerous standards that protect workers from the coronavirus, including standards on sanitation. OSHA’s sanitation standard requires lavatories be equipped with running water, hand soap or similar cleansing agents, and hand towels or air blowers. 

OSHA continues to work with USDA, CDC, and federal partners across the government to provide the best information available to protect all of America’s workers. OSHA guidance and alerts provide clear information to help employers understand what they can do to protect workers from COVID-19 and other diseases. Much of this guidance is industry-specific and is available in multiple languages. Visit OSHA.gov to help spread knowledge, not germs.

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