New guidance went into effect last week from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding how companies and agency representatives should handle Covid-19-related complaints, referrals and severe illness reports. The guidance replaced previous guidance in which OSHA limited companies’ obligations in reporting cases of Covid-19 in the workplace.

Recording a Covid-19 illness does not, of itself, mean that the employer has violated any OSHA standard, the agency said. Further, employers with 10 or fewer employees and certain employers in low-hazard industries have no recording obligations; they need only report work-related Covid-19 illnesses that result in a fatality or an employee’s in-patient hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye.

Because of the difficulty with determining work-relatedness of Covid-19 infections, OSHA is exercising enforcement discretion to assess employers’ efforts in making work-related determinations.

In determining whether an employer has complied with this obligation and made a reasonable determination of work-relatedness, OSHA is directing its compliance safety and health officers to apply the following considerations:

  • The reasonableness of the employer’s investigation into work-relatedness. Employers, especially small employers, should not be expected to undertake extensive medical inquiries. It is sufficient in most circumstances for the employer to ask the employee how he believes he contracted the Covid-19 illness; while respecting employee privacy, discuss with the employee his work and out-of-work activities that may have led to the Covid-19 illness; and review the employee’s work environment for potential SARS-CoV-2 exposure. The review should be informed by any other instances of workers in that environment contracting Covid-19.
  • The evidence available to the employer. OSHA will consider the evidence that a Covid-19 illness was work-related based on the information reasonably available to the employer at the time it made its work-relatedness determination. If the employer later learns more information related to an employee’s Covid-19 illness, then that information should be taken into account as well in determining whether an employer made a reasonable work-relatedness determination.
  • The evidence that a Covid-19 illness was contracted at work. OSHA will take into account all reasonably available evidence, in the manner described above, to determine whether an employer has complied with its recording obligation. This cannot be reduced to a ready formula, but certain types of evidence may weigh in favor of or against work-relatedness. For instance:
    • Covid-19 illnesses are likely work-related when several cases develop among workers who work closely together and there is no alternative explanation.
    • An employee’s Covid-19 illness is likely work-related if it is contracted shortly after lengthy, close exposure to a particular customer or coworker who has a confirmed case of Covid-19 and there is no alternative explanation.
    • An employee’s Covid-19 illness is likely work-related if his job duties include having frequent, close exposure to the general public in a locality with ongoing community transmission and there is no alternative explanation.
    • An employee’s Covid-19 illness is likely not work-related if she is the only worker to contract Covid-19 in her vicinity and her job duties do not include having frequent contact with the general public, regardless of the rate of community spread.
    • An employee’s Covid-19 illness is likely not work-related if he, outside the workplace, closely and frequently associates with someone (e.g., a family member, significant other or close friend) who (1) has Covid-19; (2) is not a coworker; and (3) exposes the employee during the period in which the individual is likely infectious.
    • Compliance safety and health officers should give due weight to any evidence of causation, pertaining to the employee illness, at issue provided by medical providers, public health authorities or the employee herself.

If, after the reasonable and good faith inquiry described above, the employer cannot determine whether it is more likely than not that exposure in the workplace played a causal role with respect to a particular case of Covid-19, the employer does not need to record that Covid-19 illness. In all events, it is important as a matter of worker health and safety, as well as public health, for an employer to examine Covid-19 cases among workers and respond appropriately to protect workers, regardless of whether a case is ultimately determined to be work-related.