OSHA Pandemic Safety Rules Only Cover Health Care Workers

By: - June 11, 2021 12:00 am

JBS workers protest in Utah last June at the meatpacking plant where hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19. Workplace safety advocates hoped the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration would update rules to protect meatpackers and other workers, but the agency’s new standard covers only the health care industry. Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via The Associated Press

Federal workplace safety officials issued new rules Thursday to protect health care workers during the pandemic, disappointing labor advocates who hoped for swifter action and sweeping standards that would apply in all workplaces.

The emergency temporary standard issued by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires health care workplaces to meet mandates for physical distancing, cleaning, physical barriers, personal protective equipment, ventilation and other protections.

“This tailored standard allows OSHA to help the workers most in danger of contracting the virus,” Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick said in a statement.

OSHA also issued new guidance on COVID-19 measures for all employers, including paid time off for vaccinations, barriers and shields, and employer-provided face coverings, but not in the form of enforceable rules that workers’ rights groups have urged.

“The Biden Administration has missed a crucial opportunity to protect all workers,” Jessica Martinez, a co-executive director of the worker advocacy group National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said in a statement. “This is a new insult on top of the injuries, illnesses and deaths suffered by frontline workers and their families.”

Under the Trump administration, OSHA resisted calls to issue new workplace safety rules related to COVID-19, angering activists who felt officials were protecting business interests over workers. Some states, including California, crafted their own regulations, creating a patchwork of uneven rules.

Soon after President Joe Biden was inaugurated, he directed OSHA to explore issuing emergency rules. When he selected Doug Parker, the leader of California’s workplace safety agency, to head OSHA, activists were optimistic that new rules would soon be forthcoming.

“Workers will be looking to him to take immediate action to enact a nationwide COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard,” Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, a co-executive director of the national council, said at the time.

On Thursday, Goldstein-Gelb said the protections for health care workers were “delayed for far too long.”

In some states, rules issued by state workplace safety agencies still cover workers across different industries. But many states have refused to set new standards during the pandemic. And 29 states remain under the jurisdiction of federal OSHA for private sector workplaces.

Some business groups have challenged state rules, saying they are unfair to employers. While those groups have stayed silent about the health care-specific rules, the American Hospital Association praised the new standards in a statement.

“We appreciate that OSHA acknowledged the science by including CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines and recommendations,” said Stacey Hughes, the group’s executive vice president. “The emergency temporary standard provides flexibility to assess the various levels of risk in different parts of the hospital.”

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, a national federation of unions, issued a statement praising the Biden administration’s emergency health care rules.

“But we are deeply concerned that the [emergency temporary standard] will not cover workers in other industries, including those in meatpacking, grocery, transportation and corrections, who have suffered high rates of COVID-19 infections and death,” he added. “Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 exposures and infections.”

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.