June 11, 2021

Health care employers must take new steps to protect against Covid-19, OSHA says

Daily Briefing

    The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on Thursday announced an emergency temporary standard aimed at protecting health care workers in settings with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases, citing the "grave danger" they face from exposure to the coronavirus.

    Details on the rule

    The new standard requires that all health care workers wear N95 or elastomeric respirators when working with people who are suspected of having or are confirmed to have Covid-19. Employers must install physical barriers within 30 days in areas where social distancing isn't possible.

    Employers must also document all Covid-19 cases among their employees, regardless of whether the case was work-related, and must report all work-related deaths, even if they occur more than 30 days post-exposure.

    The rule also requires employers to report all work-related Covid-19 hospitalizations. Previously, employers were required to report only those Covid-19 hospitalizations that occurred within 24 hours of a work-related exposure.

    Health care workers who are fully vaccinated are exempt from both masking and social distancing requirements, and—if there are no suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases—they do not need to adhere to the barrier requirement, according to the rule. Workplaces where all staff are vaccinated or certain measures are in place to screen potentially sick employees are also exempt from the new rule.

    Employers will also be required to pay employees for the time it takes to get vaccinated and to recover from any potential side effects.

    The rule will also "enable OSHA to issue more meaningful penalties for willful or egregious violations, thus facilitating better enforcement and more effective deterrence against employers who intentionally disregard … employee safety," according to OSHA.

    Reaction

    James Frederick, acting assistant secretary of labor of OSHA, said the agency had received a significant number of workplace-related Covid-19 complaints from health care providers.

    "These are the workers who continue to go into work day in and day out to take care of us, to save our lives," he said. "And we must make sure we do everything in our power to return the favor to protect them."

    Barbara Rosen, VP of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union in New Jersey, said the new rule was good but it's "a little late."

    "If we had this in place at the beginning, it would have saved a lot of lives and a lot of suffering that has gone on with health care workers and probably patients in hospitals because of the spread," she said.

    In a statement, David Michaels, a former administrator at OSHA and a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, criticized OSHA for issuing a rule that covered only health care workers and not others in high-risk industries.

    "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," he said. "If exposure is not controlled in these workplaces, they will continue to be important drivers of infections."

    Frederick said OSHA is adding more inspectors and will provide high-risk industries with education, training, and assistance in complying with the agency's guidance (Jewett, Kaiser Health News, 6/10; Gillespie, Modern Healthcare, 6/10; Hals, Reuters, 6/10).

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