Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images
Fifteen months after the start of the pandemic, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a mandatory workplace safety rule designed to protect workers from COVID-19. But that only applies to healthcare facilities, a setback for unions and worker safety advocates who had called for much broader demands.
Called a temporary emergency standard, the rule takes effect upon publication in the Federal Register and can remain in place for up to six months, during which time a permanent rule could be considered.
The new rule requires employers to develop and implement a COVID-19 plan and take steps to reduce the risk of transmission, including keeping people at least six feet from each other at the interior, installing barriers between workstations where distance is not possible, ensuring that the ventilation systems are functioning properly. , and provide and ensure that each employee wears a face mask when indoors, or a respirator and other PPE when exposed to people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.
For unvaccinated workers, employers are now required to schedule paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from the side effects of injections.
Some terms of the rule are vague and seem subject to interpretation. For example, fully vaccinated workers are exempt from the requirements when they are in well-defined areas where there is “no reasonable expectation” that they will be exposed to the virus.
The rule covers more than 10 million workers
OSHA Interim Administrator Jim Frederick estimates that there are 10.3 million people working in places that will need to comply with the requirements, including hospitals, nursing homes and residences- services. The rule also covers emergency responders and home health workers. Not included are people who work in other medical settings such as medical or dental offices.
“After a thorough review of the science and data, OSHA has determined that a specific health care requirement will have the greatest impact,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said on a call with reporters. Acknowledging the months that have passed since the Labor Department first considered issuing this rule, he added: “We know it has taken a long time to come.”
The Food Chain Workers Alliance, which represents 375,000 food workers in the United States and Canada, is one of a number of groups denouncing the narrow scope of the rule.
“Food system workers have sacrificed their physical and mental health during the pandemic to support our country, even though their employers have often neglected their safety and well-being. The failure of the Biden administration to include them in this news OSHA standard ignores this sacrifice and sets the stage for yet another tragedy, ”the statement said.
Previous Covid standards were voluntary
This is the first time during the pandemic that OSHA has imposed workplace safety requirements on employers from Covid. So far, OSHA has only issued recommendations on actions employers can voluntarily take to keep workers safe. During his presidential campaign, Biden criticized the Trump administration for not doing more.
The bar for issuing a temporary emergency standard is high. OSHA must determine that workers are in “serious danger” due to exposure to toxic substances or new hazards and that an emergency rule is needed for their protection, according to the website. OSHA.
At a House Education and Labor Committee hearing on Wednesday, Secretary Walsh was faced with the question of whether a serious danger still exists for American workers.
Pressed by Republican Representative Tim Walberg of Michigan, Walsh said he was not a scientist and could not fully answer the question. But he added: “I like the signs that are showing where we are heading with COVID-19. I like the fact that our numbers are going down. However, people are still dying and people are still infected. “
Business groups say rules are an unnecessary burden
For months, the business community argued that a temporary emergency standard could no longer be justified and would place a burden on businesses recovering from the pandemic. The CDC’s May 13 guidance that fully vaccinated people no longer needed masks indoors became a topic of discussion.
“A lot of employers push their employees to get vaccinated. Obviously, many workplaces have a high number of people vaccinated. It really undermines any argument OSHA would have for asserting serious danger,” Marc said. Freedman, vice president of employment policy. to the United States Chamber of Commerce, after the publication of these guidelines.
Meanwhile, worker safety advocates have pointed out that the change in mask guidelines and the abandonment of state and local mask ordinances were the main reasons OSHA still had to act.
“People across the country have taken off their masks. They are not socially distanced. Employers are no longer increasing ventilation,” former OSHA administrator David Michaels said in May. “This is a terrible mistake. There are so many unvaccinated people who are at risk for this deadly virus.”
Michaels, now a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, said today that the new rule is better than no rule, but that if exposure to the virus is not controlled in high-risk industries such As meat processing, corrections and retail establishments, these industries will continue to generate infections as more infectious variants take over and large numbers of people go unvaccinated.