June 14, 2021 -- The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its long-awaited Emergency Temporary Standard for COVID-19 last week, surprising many by including only health care workers in the new emergency workplace safety rules.
The standards are an overdue step toward protecting healthcare workers, especially those working in long-term care facilities and home health care who are at greatly increased risk of infection," says George Washington professor and former Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels, PhD. "OSHA's failure to issue a COVID-specific standard in other high-risk industries, like meat and poultry processing, corrections, homeless shelters, and retail establishments is disappointing. If exposure is not controlled in these workplaces, they will continue to be important drivers of infections."
With the new regulations in place, about 10.3 million health care workers at hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, as well as emergency responders and home healthcare workers, should be guaranteed protection standards.
The new protections include supplying personal protective equipment and ensuring they are used properly (for example, mandatory checks of seals on respirators); screening everyone who enters the facility for COVID-19; ensuring proper ventilation; and establishing physical distancing requirements of 6 feet for unvaccinated workers. It also requires employers to give workers time off for vaccination. An anti-retaliation clause could shield workers who complain about unsafe conditions.
"The science tells us that health care workers, particularly those who come into regular contact with the virus, are most at risk at this point in the pandemic," Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said on a press call. "So following an extensive review of the science and data, OSHA determined that a healthcare-specific safety requirement will make the biggest impact."
But questions remain, said James Brudney, JD, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York City and former chief counsel of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor. The standard doesn't address existing rules about a right to refuse unsafe work, for example, so employees may still feel they are risking their jobs to complain, despite the anti-retaliation clause.
And although vaccinated employees don't have to adhere to the same distancing and masking rules in many situations, the standard doesn't spell out how employers should determine their workers' vaccination status. Rather, that determination is left to employers through their own policies and procedures.
The Trump administration did not issue emergency standards, saying OSHA's general rules were good enough. President Joe Biden took the opposite approach, calling for new standards on his first day in office. But the process took months longer than promised.
"I know it's been a long time coming," Walsh acknowledged on the press call. "Our health care workers from the very beginning have been put at risk.
While healthcare unions had asked for mandated safety standards sooner, National Nurses United, the country's largest labor union for registered nurses, still welcomed the rules.
The new rules are "a major step toward requiring accountability for hospitals who consistently put their budget goals and profits over our health and safety," Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, one of the union’s three presidents, said in a statement.
The rules do not apply to retail pharmacies, out-patient clinics that screen non-employees for COVID-19, or certain other settings in which all employees are vaccinated and people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cannot enter.
The agency said it will work with states that have already issued local regulations, including Virginia and California, which have issued temporary standards of their own.
Employers will have 2 weeks to comply with most of the regulations after they're published in the Federal Register. The standards will expire in 6 months but could then become permanent, as Virginia's did in January.