Tag Archives: guidance

Gary Smith, FoodChain ID
FST Soapbox

Are Remote Audits Here to Stay?

By Gary Smith
1 Comment
Gary Smith, FoodChain ID

Starting in late March, based on travel restrictions and the risk of COVID-19 infection transmission, GFSI released direction to the food industry on the possibility of recertification extensions. The extensions enabled a one-time, six-month grace period to prevent certification loss.

In June GFSI updated guidance to allow up to half of the recertification process to be completed off-site using remote technology, while requiring completion of an audit’s on-site inspection within 28 to 30 days. In exceptional circumstances, a certification program could allow a maximum of 90 days for the on-site audit portion. As these “blended” audits began, fewer facilities sought extensions.

The remote portion of an audit, which includes program and record review as well as interviews, may increase audit time compared to pre-COVID audits, as all involved adjust to the use of technology and accessible electronic formats for records and programs.

After COVID-19, it is conceivable to predict that a portion of the audit could remain virtual. However, in food production, auditing requires the use of sight, touch and smell, not yet replicated without human observation. And, while COVID-19 has forced an audit evolution by pushing “virtual” adoption based on business needs, remote capabilities will still require a significant investment in technology, time and re-education of the industry. In the meantime, expect audit schedules to be disrupted for the next 9 to 12 months.

As the industry seeks to adapt for the future, we will likely see an acceleration in terms of digitized quality management systems. In the short term, manufacturers are putting their energy and focus into keeping employees safe, maintaining production and meeting customer commitments.

Several leading food safety groups have issued guidance on best practices for blended audits and the use of technology. And while the answer to “Are blended audits are here to stay?” appears to be “yes” for the immediate future, audits are expected to evolve over time. Although certain sections within audits are better adapted to remote capabilities, facilities will continue to use on-site auditors until new technologies enable them to do otherwise.

Melanie Neumann, Neumann Risk Services
FST Soapbox

The COVID-19 Record Retention Conundrum

By Melanie J. Neumann
2 Comments
Melanie Neumann, Neumann Risk Services

During this global pandemic, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) green-lighted employers to take temperatures checks of employees and to administer COVID-19 testing for workers prior to returning to work without running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This appears straight-forward upon first reading, however, several practical uncertainties about implementation, including confidentiality, discrimination, and how long to retain records remain.

As such, deciding whether to take temperatures and/or require COVID- 19 testing as a return to work strategy is more complicated than it may seem.

Temperature Screening & Testing Considerations

Temperature screening and COVID-19 mandatory testing are both permitted medical examinations during this pandemic but are otherwise prohibited during non-pandemic times. Before adopting, employers should understand the requirements impacting the records these tests generate, including the need to protect confidentiality and to retain records for longer than one may expect.

Temperature Screens
Under normal circumstances, temperature checks are considered a prohibited medical examination under the ADA. During a pandemic, however, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) makes an exception, allowing employers to take temperatures/use temperature checks and exclude employees from the workplace should temperatures exceed public health recommendations. If employers keep records of temperatures, they must retain these records per applicable regulations. This is important because an “employee medical record” would likely result if employers take employees’ temperatures or collect temperature related records. As we will see below, there are regulatory requirements that require how we conduct these screens, and where and for how long we must retain them.

COVID-19 Testing

COVID-19 testing also constitutes a permissible medical exam under ADA during this pandemic, per the EEOC-issued guidance regarding mandatory employee testing.

For medical examinations to be allowed under the ADA, the test must be “job related and consistent with business necessity,” and employers must treat information as a confidential medical exam.

The initial guidance acknowledged that the spread of COVID-19 is a “direct threat,” hence meeting the requirement that a medical exam be “job related and consistent with business necessity” and that temperature screenings were therefore appropriate. For the same reasons, in updated guidance released at the end of April 2020, the EEOC expanded that guidance to clarify that employers may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus for the same reasons.

When reading the EEOC’s language closely, the permission granted by EEOC appears to be for diagnostic tests, as the guidance states testing is to determine if employees have the virus before allowing employees to return to work. It is unclear whether antibody testing is included in the above analysis because antibody tests do not determine if someone is currently infected.

In addition, there are other considerations employers should assess before adopting a testing protocol. EEOC reminds employers that they must review the accuracy and efficacy of the selected test per FDA and CDC recommendations. Moreover, pragmatic considerations, such as how to maintain social distancing and employee privacy, determining who will perform the testing and at what the frequency, not to mention evaluating whether there is enough test capacity to perform employee-wide testing at a meaningful cadence should be evaluated.

Records Management & Retention

There is another often over-looked question: What do employers do with documented test records? This question applies whether the employer conducts the test, requires tests from employee’s healthcare providers to be off work to self-isolate, or as a return to work requirement.

It was clearly outlined above that temperature records and COVID-19 test records constitute employee medical records. Why is this important? Because there are specific requirements relating to employee medical records, including what appears to be a surprisingly long retention requirement.

Where to retain: An employer should store all medical information related to COVID-19 in existing medical files, separate from the employee’s personnel file, per the ADA, limiting access to this employee confidential information. This includes an employee’s statement that he has COVID-19 or suspects he/she has the disease, or the employer’s notes or other documentation from questioning an employee about symptoms.

How long to retain: That is the 30-year question. The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) provides retention requirements for employee medical records in certain situations for a period of an employee’s employment plus 30 years.

While COVID-19 test results and temperature screening documentation are deemed medical examinations under the applicable regulations, are the documented results deemed medical records? We turn to applicable EEOC OSHA regulations in section 1910.1020 for answers.

OSHA Requirements

The OSHA general duty clause, section 5(a)(1) requires employers to furnish to each of its employees a workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm. COVID-19 appears to rise to this threat level. But is that fact alone dispositive to falling under the applicable OSHA retention requirements?

OSHA regulation section 1910.1020 requires employers to retain employee exposure or employee medical records relating to employee exposure to certain hazards. This section applies to each general industry, maritime and construction employer who makes, maintains, contracts for, or has access to employee exposure or medical records, or analyses thereof, pertaining to employees exposed to toxic substances or harmful physical agents (Emphasis added).

Is SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, considered a “toxic substance or harmful physical agent?”

Most would quickly assume the answer is ‘yes’. But it may not be as clear as the black and white letter of the law would hope. Let’s review some key definitions in the applicable regulation to help shed more light on this question.

What are Toxic Substances or Harmful Physical Agents?

The record retention requirement pivots on the last phrase of 1910.1020, that is “…pertaining to employees exposed to toxic substances or harmful physical agents.”

Toxic substances or harmful physical agents are defined as follows;

  • 1910.1020(c)(13) “Toxic substance or harmful physical agent” means any chemical substance, biological agent (bacteria, virus, fungus, etc.), or physical stress (noise, heat, cold, vibration, repetitive motion, ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, hypo – or hyperbaric pressure, etc.) which:
    • 1910.1020(c)(13)(i) is listed in the latest printed edition of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances (RTECS) which is incorporated by reference as specified in Sec. 1910.6; or
    • 1910.1020(c)(13)(ii) has yielded positive evidence of an acute or chronic health hazard in testing conducted by, or known to, the employer; or
    • 1910.1020(c)(13)(iii) is the subject of a material safety data sheet kept by or known to the employer indicating that the material may pose a hazard to human health. (Emphasis added by author).

The use of “or” clarifies that only one of the criteria need to be met. Based on the above, while subsections (c)(13)(i) and (c)(13)(iii) do not appear relevant, subsection (c)(13)(ii) appears to apply as SARS-CoV-2 has shown to result in acute health hazard, resulting in the disease COVID-19. Whether there is a chronic health impact remains to be seen given the novelty of this virus. That said, acute health impact appears sufficient to determine SARS-CoV-2 as a “toxic substance or harmful physical agent” for purposes of this analysis.

This alone doesn’t automatically place an employer in a 30-plus year requirement to retain employee medical records. What constitutes an “employee medical record” and “employee exposure record” for purposes of this regulation must be further understood before determining appropriate retention.

What are Employee Medical Records and Employee Exposure Records?

“Employee medical records” are defined in section 1910.1020(c)(6), and means a record concerning the health status of an employee that is made or maintained by a physician, nurse or other healthcare personnel, or technician, including: Medical and employment questionnaires or histories, the results of medical exams, lab test results, medical opinions/doctor’s recommendations, first aid records, employee medical complaints, and descriptions of treatment or prescriptions.

Section 1910.1020(d)(1)(i) goes on to specifically prescribes a minimum of a 30-plus year retention period as follows: “The medical record for each employee shall be preserved and maintained for at least the duration of employment plus thirty (30) years.”

“Employee exposure records,” are defined in subsection 1910.1020(d)(1)(ii), as: “Each employee exposure record shall be preserved and maintained for at least thirty (30) years,…”. Some exceptions are listed in this subsection for records relating to health insurance claims, first aid records and records relating to employees working less than one year.

What Constitutes Employee Exposure?

One must also look at what “employee exposure” means in light of this regulatory requirement to determine applicability of the 30-plus year retention.

1910.1020(c)(8) defines “exposure” or “exposed” to mean that an employee is subjected to a toxic substance or harmful physical agent in the course of employment through any route of entry (inhalation, ingestion, skin contact or absorption, etc.), and includes past exposure and potential (e.g., accidental or possible) exposure, but does not include situations where the employer can demonstrate that the toxic substance or harmful physical agent is not used, handled, stored, generated, or present in the workplace in any manner different from typical non-occupational situations.

More Questions than Answers

This analysis may leave more questions than answers, as several questions remain after looking closely at the regulatory requirements. For example:

  • How can an employee prove that exposure to SARS-CoV-2 occurred in the course of employment?
  • Does the employee even have to? The regulation clearly states that it is the employer’s burden, in that the “employer demonstrate that a toxic substance or harmful physical agent was not present in the workplace in any manner different from typical, non-occupational situations”.
  • How can an “employer demonstrate” that the harmful physical agent was not present? In other words, how can employers demonstrate that its employees are at any greater exposure by coming to work than they are in their every day lives, like going to the grocery store?
  • How do employers prove absence? Is it even possible given several people are asymptomatic?
  • Does this analysis differ by food industry sectors? What about meat and poultry processors with known high rates of infection in their workplace? Would the analysis differ?

Conclusion

Short of additional guidance issued by Department of Labor’s OSHA, ultimately this will likely be decided by the courts when the first lawsuit on this topic arises, known as decision via case law. What do employers do in the interim while these shades of gray are not yet adjudicated? It is recommended to err on the side of caution. Find ways to adjust your company’s record retention procedures and systems to be able to accurately retain these records for the duration of your employee’s employment plus 30 years.

Resources

  1. OSHA Laws & Regulations. OSH Act of 1970. SEC 5. Duties. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/oshact/section5-duties
  2. OSHA Standards. Part 1910, Standard 1910.1020. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1020
  3. OSHA. Access to Medical and Exposure Records. (2001). U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/Publications/pub3110text.html
  4.  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws”. (Updated May 7, 2020). Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-covid-19-and-ada-rehabilitation-act-and-other-eeo-laws. See A. 6 and B.1.
FDA

As States Look to Reopen, FDA Releases Best Practices for Retail Food Establishments

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA

Across the country, many restaurants have been closed for at least two months, while others have been partially closed and offering take-out or delivery to customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. As states begin their strategy to reopen the economy, many restaurants have already opened, and others are preparing for when this day comes. To better help food retail establishments during this uncertain time, the FDA has issued the checklist, “Best Practices for Re-Opening Retail Food Establishments During the COVID-19 Pandemic”, along with a two-page infographic.

The checklist offers guidance in several key areas related to food safety practices, including:

  • Facility Operations
  • Water, Plumbing and Ice
  • Food Contact and Non-food Contact Surfaces (clean, disinfect, sanitize)
  • Food Temperature Control
  • Product Inspection, Rotation
  • Dishwashing Equipment
  • Handwashing Stations
  • Employee Health/Screening
  • Social Distancing

While the food safety checklist covers a lot of ground, the FDA has stated that the list is not comprehensive. “We encourage retail food establishments to partner with local regulatory/health authorities to discuss the specific requirements for their retail food establishment prior to re-opening,” the agency states.

FDA

FDA’s Final Guidance on Mandatory Food Recall Authority Part of Efforts to be Robust and Transparent

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA

Yesterday FDA released the final guidance on its mandatory recall authority under FSMA. Although the agency has only taken a mandatory recall action once since 2011—in April, FDA issued a recall of Triangle Pharmanaturals Kratom Products—the FDA’s authority to recall products “plays an important role in ensuring that potentially dangerous food products are removed from the marketplace,” states the agency in a release. “The agency remains committed to working with firms to facilitate the orderly and prompt voluntary removal of potentially dangerous products from the food supply. FDA Recall Coordinators are available to assist firms during the recall process.”

The final guidance, “Questions and Answers Regarding Mandatory Food Recalls: Guidance for Industry and FDA Staff”, is as its title states, in a Q&A format, offering answers to the most common questions about the mandatory recall provisions in section 423 of the FD&C Act.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. also released a statement about the agency’s commitment to keeping unsafe products off the market. “When issues arise that would put consumers at risk, we won’t hesitate to mandate the removal of a product from the market using the full extent of our authorities. It’s our responsibility. And it’s critical to our mission to ensure the safety of Americans,” stated Gottlieb in a press release. He added that most companies are cooperative in closely working with FDA to initiate voluntary recalls.

FDA will be making additional moves to enhance its recall policies, according to Gottlieb.

FDA

FDA Revises Draft Guidance for Listeria Control in RTE Foods

By Food Safety Tech Staff
No Comments
FDA

Any food facility that manufactures, processes, packs or holds ready-to-eat (RTE) foods should view FDA’s update on its draft guidance, Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-To-Eat Foods. Consistent with FSMA, the draft focuses on prevention, and includes best practices and FSIS’s seek-and-destroy approach. Other recommendations include controls involving personnel, cleaning and maintenance of equipment, sanitation, treatments that kill Lm, and formulations that prevent Lm from growing during food storage (occurring between production and consumption).

“This guidance is not directed to processors of RTE foods that receive a listericidal control measure applied to the food in the final package, or applied to the food just prior to packaging in a system that adequately shields the product and food contact surfaces of the packaging from contamination from the food processing environment.” – FDA

The agency will begin accepting comments on January 17.