COVID -19 OSHA Updates Guidance on Protecting Unvaccinated Workers

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Unvaccinated Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace

Protecting unvaccinated workers: OSHA will update this guidance over time to reflect developments in science, best practices, and standards.

Guidance posted January 29, 2021; Updated June 10, 2021

Summary of changes August 13, 2021

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This guidance is designed to help employers protect workers who are unvaccinated (including people who are not fully vaccinated) or otherwise at-risk (as defined in the text box below), including if they are immunocompromised, and also implement new guidance involving workers who are fully vaccinated but located in areas of substantial or high community transmission.

This guidance contains recommendations as well as descriptions of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) mandatory safety and health standards, the latter of which are clearly labeled throughout as “mandatory OSHA standards.” The recommendations are advisory in nature and informational in content and are intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.


OSHA emphasizes that vaccination is the most effective way to protect against severe illness or death from COVID-19. OSHA strongly encourages employers to provide paid time off to workers for the time it takes for them to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects. Employers should also consider working with local public health authorities to provide vaccinations for unvaccinated workers in the workplace. Finally, OSHA suggests that employers consider adopting policies that require workers to get vaccinated or to undergo regular COVID-19 testing – in addition to mask wearing and physical distancing – if they remain unvaccinated. People are considered fully vaccinated for COVID-19 two weeks or more after they have completed their final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine authorized for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the United States.

Executive Summary Protecting Unvaccinated Employees

This guidance is intended to help employers and workers not covered by the OSHA’s COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for Healthcare, helping them identify COVID-19 exposure risks to workers who are unvaccinated or otherwise at risk even if they are fully vaccinated (e.g., if they are immunocompromised). See Text Box: Who Are “At-Risk” Workers?

This guidance is also intended to help employers and workers who are located in areas of substantial or high community transmission, who should take appropriate steps to prevent exposure and infection regardless of vaccination status. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports in its latest Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People that infections in fully vaccinated people (breakthrough infections) happen in only a small proportion of people who are fully vaccinated, even with the Delta variant. Moreover, when these infections occur among vaccinated people, they tend to be mild, reinforcing that vaccines are an effective and critical tool for bringing the pandemic under control.

However, preliminary evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people who do become infected with the Delta variant can be infectious and can spread the virus to others.

This evidence has led CDC to update recommendations for fully vaccinated people to reduce their risk of becoming infected with the Delta variant and potentially spreading it to others, including by:

  • wearing a mask1 in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission;
  • choosing to wear a mask regardless of level of transmission, particularly if individuals are at risk or have someone in their household who is at increased risk of severe disease or not fully vaccinated; and
  • getting tested 3-5 days following a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and wearing a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days after exposure or until a negative test result.2

In this guidance, OSHA adopts analogous recommendations.

CDC has also updated its guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools to recommend universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.3 CDC’s Face Mask Order requiring masks on public transportation conveyances and inside transportation hubs has not changed, but CDC has announced that it will be amending its Face Masks Order to not require people to wear a mask in outdoor areas of conveyances (if such outdoor areas exist on the conveyance) or while outdoors at transportation hubs, and that it will exercise its enforcement discretion in the meantime.

COVID-19 and Prevention

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, is highly infectious and can spread from person to person, including through aerosol transmission of particles produced when an infected person exhales, talks, vocalizes, sneezes, or coughs. The virus that causes COVID-19 is highly transmissible and can be spread by people who have no symptoms. Particles containing the virus can travel more than 6 feet, especially indoors and in dry conditions (relative humidity below 40%), and can be spread by individuals who do not know they are infected.

Vaccines authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the United States are highly effective at protecting most fully vaccinated people against symptomatic and severe COVID-19. OSHA encourages employers to take steps to make it easier for workers to get vaccinated and encourages workers to take advantage of those opportunities. However, CDC recognizes that even some fully vaccinated people who are largely protected against severe illness and death may still be capable of transmitting the virus to others. Therefore, this guidance mirrors CDC’s in recommending masking and testing even for fully vaccinated people in certain circumstances.

OSHA also continues to recommend implementing multiple layers of controls (e.g. mask wearing, distancing, and increased ventilation). Along with vaccination, key controls to help protect unvaccinated and other at-risk workers include removing from the workplace all infected people, all people experiencing COVID symptoms, and any people who are not fully vaccinated who have had close contact with someone with COVID-19 and have not tested negative for COVID-19 immediately if symptoms develop and again at least 5 days after the contact (in which case they may return 7 days after contact). Fully vaccinated people who have had close contact should get tested for COVID-19 3-5 days after exposure and be required to wear face coverings for 14 days after their contact unless they test negative for COVID-19. Additional fundamental controls that protect unvaccinated and other at-risk workers include maintaining ventilation systems, implementing physical distancing, and properly using face coverings (or other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and respiratory protection such as N95 respirators when appropriate), and proper cleaning. Fully vaccinated people in areas of substantial or high transmission should be required to wear face coverings inside (or other appropriate PPE and respiratory protection) as well. Employees may request reasonable accommodations, absent an undue hardship, if they are unable to comply with safety requirements due to a disability. For more information, see the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.

Finally, OSHA provides employers with specific guidance for environments at a higher risk for exposure to or spread of COVID-19, primarily workplaces where unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers are more likely to be in prolonged, close contact with other workers or the public, or in closed spaces without adequate ventilation.


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