New Covid workplace safety rules snag health care, spare other industries


June 10, 2021 3:26 pm

“The science tells us that health care workers, particularly those who come into regular contact with the virus, are the most at risk at this point in the pandemic. So following an extensive review of the science data, OSHA determined that a health care-specific safety requirement will make the biggest impact,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said during a press call Thursday.

Specifically, the new standards for health care would, among other requirements, mandate that health care employers provide respirators to employees working with Covid patients, establish a Covid response plan, screen employees and patients for the virus, record employee cases, and provide training on Covid risks at work.

Employers will not have to provide masks, social distancing or barriers to fully vaccinated workers “where there is no reasonable expectation that any person with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 will be present,” the rules say.

“OSHA has tailored the rule that reflects the reality on the ground — the success of the vaccine efforts plus the latest guidance from CDC and the changing nature of the pandemic,” Walsh added. “Requirements will be familiar to folks: mass social distancing and time away if you’re sick from coronavirus. The rule also requires paid time off to get vaccinated, and to recover from any side effects.”

The rules will apply to “hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities” DOL said, and include emergency responders and home health care workers, according to a summary of the rules. They will not apply to retail pharmacies and non-hospital ambulatory settings that bar people with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 from entering.

DOL also updated its optional Covid safety guidelines for all other workplaces, adding additional information for how employers should protect vaccinated and unvaccinated employees as well as recommendations for high- contact industries like meatpacking and grocery stores.

The guidance urges employers to provide masks to unvaccinated or at-risk workers and to allow for social distancing, but also noted that “most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their workers from COVID-19 exposure” if all of their employees are fully vaccinated.

The narrow scope of the long-awaited mandatory rules is a loss for unions, a strong source of grassroots support for Joe Biden’s presidential bid in 2020, galvanized by his promises to advance a “working class” agenda.

Other left-leaning groups also critized the rules.

“This decision represents a shameful failure of leadership by an administration that was elected on a platform of standing for the needs of all working people,” said Gina Cummings, of the anti-poverty group Oxfam America.

Democrats and worker safety advocates who wanted broad Covid safety measures to apply to all workplaces say that the administration’s decision to limit their scope to just health care abandons an essential piece of the Covid-19 response plan Biden campaigned on and will put vulnerable workers at risk.

“The Biden administration has missed a crucial opportunity to protect all workers,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

“This is a new insult on top of the injuries, illnesses and deaths suffered by frontline workers and their families,“ said Martinez. “Vaccines have not reached all workers and Covid-19 is not over.”

But Republicans and business groups expressed some relief, having opposed mandatory safety requirements throughout the pandemic that they argued would contradict state health rules in some places and impose unnecessary costs that would hold back the overall economic recovery.

“We appreciate the Department of Labor refuted the ridiculous claims from Democrats and their union allies that all American workers are presently in grave danger from the virus. Yet still, despite widespread vaccinations and COVID-19 cases at lows not seen since the beginning of the pandemic, OSHA caved to political pressure from special interests to adopt an emergency temporary standard (ETS) in the health care sector,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, in a statement.

“Placing new and burdensome regulation on this heroic industry at this stage of the pandemic is completely unnecessary. Further, we cannot endorse an inflexible, restrictive regulation that is unable to keep up with the ever-evolving science regarding COVID-19.”

The DOL’s decision to impose the rules for health care workers came after months of delay from the Biden administration, which was expected by both businesses and unions to issue stringent workplace masking and social distancing requirements.

Shortly after taking office, Biden asked DOL to decide by March 15 whether such emergency rules were necessary. OSHA only has the authority to issue an “emergency temporary safety standard” if it determines that workers are “in grave danger” due to exposure to something “determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards.”

However, DOL missed the deadline by several weeks after Walsh said he wanted the agency to continue reviewing the rules. After facing questions from Democrats and unions, the rules were sent to the White House budget office for review — the final step before it is released — at the end of April.

But while they were going through the final stages of review, the CDC issued new guidance in May clearing fully vaccinated people to remove masks in most settings, raising concerns that the rule would not be as stringent as originally thought.

“It’s been very tricky with guidance and the virus changing over the over the last couple of months,” Walsh said Thursday. “We know the administration’s vaccination efforts combined with OSHA’s workplace safety efforts, they’re definitely making a difference for workers and businesses across the country.”

DOL officials said that the agency was working quickly to send the rules to the Federal Register for publishing, after which it will go into effect immediately.

Health care workplaces will also have two weeks to put the protections in place after the rule is published.