OSHA’s COVID-19 Requirements Impact on the Fire Sprinkler Industry

This Article was updated on 3/26/2020

Earlier this month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced the expansion of employer’s responsibilities to prevent and track the exposure of employees to certain infectious illnesses to include COVID-19. Employers in the fire sprinkler industry, particularly contractors, may face unique challenges in complying with these responsibilities.

The OSHA standards require employers to take several steps to prevent employee exposure to the virus. The guidance follows directions issued for other diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis. First, employers must follow existing Personal Protective Equipment standards for circumstances which require gloves, goggles or safety glasses, face protection, and respiratory protection. OSHA standard 1910.134(a)(2) requires the provision of respirators when “necessary to protect the health of…” employees. The full standard can be accessed using the link in the following paragraph.

While new requirements for the use of respirators have not been announced to date, OSHA specifically clarifies here that the provision of respirators is insufficient to meet employers’ obligations under the existing standards. Employers must enact a “comprehensive respiratory protection program in accordance with the Respiratory Protection standard.” This standard requires that the program (1) be in writing, (2) outline site-specific procedures, (3) state specific standards for respirator use, and (4) be administered by a trained supervisor. Further direction for the implementation of such a program may be found in this link to OSHA Standard 1910 Subpart I (29 CFR 1910.134).

Fire sprinkler contractors should note that these requirements are imposed upon employers regarding their employees. Even though jobsite control may lie with a general contractor, employers must take steps to ensure compliance, to the fullest extent possible, their employees.

Please note that, on Tuesday, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Vice President Mike Pence, asked construction industry employers to donate their stock of N95 respirators for use by health care professionals responding to COVID-19. While OSHA issued a memo on Saturday recommending the donation of N99 and N100 respirators to the healthcare industry, the agency has not issued a response to the request regarding N95 respirators.

OSHA is currently scheduled to begin a nationwide enforcement campaign specifically targeted at respiratory standards and prevention of silica-related respiratory injury on May 4. OSHA reconfirmed its intention to carry out the enforcement push in a statement on Wednesday.

Therefore, fire sprinkler contractors with active jobsites must defer to OSHA respiratory protection requirements until further direction is provided by OSHA. Guidance from experts indicates that the Task Force’s request will not alleviate OSHA liability for failing to protect sprinkler fitters, apprentices, and any other employees on jobsites. As noted below, failure to comply with OSHA standards may result in fines and/or other penalties.

Employers will also be held to OSHA’s General Duty Clause, requiring that employees be protected from “recognized hazards… likely to cause death or serious physical harm,” and OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens standard, requiring employers to take certain steps related to employee exposure to bodily fluids. All NFSA member companies should take the time to review these standards to be sure that the proper steps toward compliance have been taken.

In addition, 28 states have enacted OSHA-approved occupational safety and health plans. These state plans impose requirements at least as comprehensive as OSHA’s standards, and NFSA members in some states may be subject to more rigorous requirements. Find more information on state requirements here.

OSHA’s initial direction essentially advised that any OSHA standard which seemed pertinent to COVID-19 spread prevention should be followed. However, OSHA issued new instructions Friday clarifying employers’ roles in tracking the spread if the virus.

The agency stated that, for an employer to be subject to the requirements, the employer must be dealing with a confirmed, work-related case of COVID-19 which requires measures that trigger normal OSHA recording requirements. These measures include the following: diagnosis by a physician, loss of consciousness, medical treatment beyond first aid, resulting work restrictions or transfer, days away from work, or death.

It remains unclear what criteria will be used to determine whether an infection is work-related and what steps employers must take to ascertain whether an employee has contracted COVID-19 or an illness with similar symptoms. NFSA strongly recommends that member companies err on the side of caution in making this determination and take whatever steps necessary to remain compliant with OSHA standards, as violations of this directive could result in fines and/or other penalties. Find more information on OSHA’s Injury and Illness Recordkeeping and Reporting Requirements here.