Managing Your Practice

OSHA in the COVID-19 era


 

As more and more reopened medical practices ramp up toward normal activity, the safety of patients and health care workers alike remains paramount. As always, the responsibility for enforcing all the new safety guidelines ultimately rests with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

Most of the modified guidelines are already familiar: wear masks (and other personal protective equipment as necessary); maintain social distancing; have hand cleaner, soap, and water readily available; and sanitize between patient examinations.

It is also important to remember that COVID-19 is now a reportable disease; check with your local health authorities as to where and how. Also remember that, if you decide to screen employees and/or patients for fevers and other symptoms of COVID-19, those data are subject to HIPAA rules and must be kept confidential.

Now might be a good time to confirm that you remain in compliance with both the new and old regulations. Even if you hold regular safety meetings – which often is not the case – it is always a good idea to occasionally conduct a comprehensive review, which could save you a lot in fines.

So get your OSHA logs out, and walk through your office. Start by making sure you have an official OSHA poster, which enumerates employee rights and explains how to file complaints. Every office must have one posted in plain site, and is what an OSHA inspector will look for first. They are available for free at OSHA’s website or you can order one by calling 800-321-OSHA.

How long have you had your written exposure control plan for blood-borne pathogens? This plan should document your use of such protective equipment as gloves, face and eye protection, needle guards, and gowns, as well as your implementation of universal precautions. It should be updated annually to reflect changes in technology – and new threats, such as COVID-19.

Review your list of hazardous substances, which all employees have a right to know about. OSHA’s list includes alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, acetone, liquid nitrogen, and other substances that you might not consider particularly dangerous, but are classified as “hazardous.” Also remember that you’re probably using new disinfectants, which may need to be added to your list. For each substance, your employees must have access to the manufacturer-supplied Material Safety Data Sheet, which outlines the proper procedures for working with a specific material, and for handling and containing it in a spill or other emergency.

It is not necessary to adopt every new safety device as it comes on the market, but you should document which ones you are using and which ones you decide not to use – and why. For example, if you and your employees decide against buying a new safety needle because you don’t think it will improve safety, or that it will be more trouble than it is worth, you still should document how you made that decision and why you believe that your current protocol is as good or better.

All at-risk employees should be provided with hepatitis B vaccine at no cost to them. And after any exposure to dangerous pathogens – which now include COVID-19 – you also must provide and pay for appropriate medical treatment and follow-up.

Another important consideration in your review: Electrical devices and their power sources in the office. All electrically powered equipment – medical or clerical – must operate safely and should all be examined. It is particularly important to check how wall outlets are set up. Make sure each outlet has sufficient power to run the equipment plugged into it and that circuit breakers are present and functioning.

Other components of the rule include proper containment of regulated medical waste, identification of regulated-waste containers, sharps disposal boxes, and periodic employee training regarding all of these things.

Medical and dental offices are not required to keep an injury and illness log under federal OSHA regulations, which other businesses must. However, your state may have a requirement that supersedes the federal law so you should check with your state, or with your local OSHA office, regarding any such requirements.

It is important to take OSHA regulations seriously because failure to comply with them can result in stiff penalties running into many thousands of dollars.

To be certain you are complying with all the rules, you can call your local OSHA office and request an inspection. This is the easiest and cheapest way because OSHA issues no citations during voluntary inspections as long as you agree to remedy any violations they discover.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected].

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