Occupational safety and health professionals use a framework called the "hierarchy of controls" to select ways of controlling workplace hazards. In other words, the best way to control a hazard is to systematically remove it from the workplace, rather than relying on workers to reduce their exposure.
During a COVID-19 outbreak, when it may not be possible to eliminate the hazard, the most effective protection measures are (listed from most effective to least effective): engineering controls, administrative controls, safe work practices (a type of administrative control), and personal protective equipment (PPE). There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of control measure when considering the ease of implementation, effectiveness, and cost. In most cases, a combination of control measures will be necessary to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19.
In addition to the types of workplace controls discussed below, CDC guidance for businesses provides employers and workers with recommended COVID-19 infection prevention strategies to implement in workplaces.
Engineering controls involve isolating employees from work-related hazards. In workplaces where they are appropriate, these types of controls reduce exposure to hazards without relying on worker behavior and can be the most cost-effective solution to implement. Engineering controls for COVID-19 include:
- Installing high-efficiency air filters.
- Increasing ventilation rates in the work environment.
- Installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards.
- Installing a drive-through window for customer service.
- Specialized negative pressure ventilation in some settings, such as for aerosol generating procedures (e.g., airborne infection isolation rooms in health care settings and specialized autopsy suites in mortuary settings).
Administrative controls require action by the worker or employer. Typically, administrative controls are changes in work policy or procedures to reduce or minimize exposure to a hazard. Examples of administrative controls for COVID-19 include:
- Encouraging sick workers to stay at home.
- Minimizing contact among workers, clients, and customers by replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual communications and implementing telework if feasible.
- Establishing alternating days or extra shifts that reduce the total number of employees in a facility at a given time, allowing them to maintain distance from one another while maintaining a full onsite work week.
- Discontinuing nonessential travel to locations with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks. Regularly check CDC travel warning levels.
- Developing emergency communications plans, including a forum for answering workers' concerns and internet-based communications, if feasible.
- Providing workers with up-to-date education and training on COVID-19 risk factors and protective behaviors (e.g., cough etiquette and care of PPE).
- Training workers who need to use protective clothing and equipment how to put it on, use/wear it, and take it off correctly, including in the context of their current and potential duties. Training material should be easy to understand and available in the appropriate language and literacy level for all workers.
Safe Work Practices
Safe work practices are types of administrative controls that include procedures for safe and proper work used to reduce the duration, frequency, or intensity of exposure to a hazard. Examples of safe work practices for COVID-19 include:
- Providing resources and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene. For example, provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60 percent alcohol, disinfectants and disposable towels for workers to clean their work surfaces.
- Requiring regular hand washing or using of alcohol-based hand rubs. Workers should always wash hands when they are visibly soiled and after removing any PPE.
- Post handwashing signs in restrooms.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
While engineering and administrative controls are considered more effective in minimizing exposure to COVID-19, PPE may also be needed to prevent certain exposures. While correctly using PPE can help prevent some exposures, it should not take the place of other prevention strategies.
Examples of PPE include: gloves, goggles, face shields, face masks and respiratory protection, when appropriate. During an outbreak of an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, recommendations for PPE specific to occupations or job tasks may change depending on geographic location, updated risk assessments for workers, and information on PPE effectiveness in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Employers should check the OSHA and CDC websites regularly for updates about recommended PPE.
All types of PPE must be:
- Selected based upon the hazard to the worker.
- Properly fitted and periodically refitted, as applicable (e.g., respirators).
- Consistently and properly worn when required.
- Regularly inspected, maintained and replaced, as necessary.
- Properly removed, cleaned, and stored or disposed of, as applicable, to avoid contamination of self, others, or the environment.
- Employers are obligated to provide their workers with PPE needed to keep them safe while performing their jobs. The types of PPE required during a COVID-19 outbreak will be based on the risk of being infected with coronavirus while working and job tasks that may lead to exposure.
- Workers, including those who work within 6 feet of individuals known to be, or suspected of being, infected with COVID-19 and those performing aerosol-generating procedures, need to use respirators:
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved, N95 filtering facepiece respirators or better must be used. It is recommended that a comprehensive, written respiratory protection program that includes fit-testing, training and medical exams be implemented to provide a higher level of protection for employees. You can refer to OSHA's Respiratory Protection standard, 29 CFR 1910.134 for more information.
- When disposable N95 filtering facepiece respirators are not available, consider using other respirators that provide greater protection and improve worker comfort. Other types of acceptable respirators include: a R/P95, N/R/P99, or N/R/P100 filtering facepiece respirator; an air-purifying elastomeric (e.g., half-face or full-face) respirator with appropriate filters or cartridges; powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) with high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) filter; or supplied air respirator (SAR). See CDC/NIOSH guidance for optimizing respirator supplies at: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/respirators-strategy.
- Consider using PAPRs (Powered Air Purifying Respirators)or SARs (Supplied Air Respirators), which are more protective than filtering facepiece respirators, for any work operations or procedures likely to generate aerosols (e.g., cough induction procedures, some dental procedures, invasive specimen collection, blowing out pipettes, shaking or vortexing tubes, filling a syringe, centrifugation).
- Use a surgical N95 respirator when both respiratory protection and resistance to blood and body fluids is needed.
- Face shields may also be worn on top of a respirator to prevent bulk contamination of the respirator. Certain respirator designs with forward protrusions (duckbill style) may be difficult to properly wear under a face shield. Ensure that the face shield does not prevent airflow through the respirator.
- Consider factors such as function, fit, ability to decontaminate, disposal and cost. OSHA's Respiratory Protection eTool provides basic information on respirators such as medical requirements, maintenance and care, fit testing, written respiratory protection programs, and voluntary use of respirators. Employers may find it beneficial in training workers. Also see NIOSH respirator guidance.
- Respirator training should address selection, use (including donning and doffing), proper disposal or disinfection, inspection for damage, maintenance, and the limitations of respiratory protection equipment. Learn more here.
- The appropriate form of respirator will depend on the type of exposure and on the transmission pattern of COVID-19. See the NIOSH "Respirator Selection Logic." or the OSHA "Respiratory Protection eTool.".
This document was prepared using information obtained from OSHA Publication 3990-03 2020 – "Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19".