OSHA Issues Safety Order for Healthcare Workers
Unions say the standard is a good start but doesn't cover enough workers
15 months after COVID hit the United States and six months after President Biden ordered OSHA to create a COVID workplace standard, the agency has finally released a temporary safety standard, but only for healthcare workers.
Even with cases of COVID dropping and vaccinations rising, some states still have vaccination rates below 40%, let alone the 70% that is needed to significantly reduce community spread. This makes the need for a safety standard even more important.
The new standard mandates that employers develop and implement a COVID-19 plan and take steps to reduce transmission which includes keeping people at least 6 feet apart indoors, installing barriers between workstations where distancing is not possible, and providing and ensuring each employee wears a face mask when indoors or a respirator or other personal protective equipment when exposed to people with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19. For unvaccinated workers, employers will also be required to provide paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects from the shot.
OSHA estimates that the new rule will cover about 10.3 million people working in hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. It would also cover emergency responders and home health care workers, but would not cover people working in dental or medical offices outside a hospital.
Unions like the United Steelworkers (USW) praised the move saying:
"The USW is glad that, after more than a year of advocacy and organizing, health care workers will finally have enforceable workplace protections against the spread of Covid-19 thanks to OSHA's new emergency temporary standard announced today. Health care workers, including 50,000 USW members, made deep, personal sacrifices every day of the pandemic caring for the sick and vulnerable. They deserve to know they will be as safe as possible while doing this vital work.
"Yet far too many health care workers have been sickened or died because their employers did not follow coronavirus protocols. This new temporary standard for Covid-19 is a huge step forward. There is still much work ahead in the fight to keep workers safe on the job, including extending these protections to all workers and making them permanent. The updated guidance for other industries OSHA also issued today provides a base on which to build, but we must keep up the momentum. Our nation's essential workers kept America running through one of our darkest times. We applaud President Biden's leadership on this issue and commend OSHA for finally taking real action to keep them safe."
However, some unions said that the standard didn’t cover enough people.
“But we are deeply concerned that the ETS 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,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 exposures and infections. Throughout the pandemic, they have had to go to work in crowded, indoor settings with poor ventilation. Many of these workers still face barriers to vaccination and remain at serious risk of exposure and infection.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) also decried the rule noting that it didn’t cover grocery stores or meatpacking plants, two of the areas that were hard hit by the pandemic.
This emergency temporary standard is the first of the pandemic. Before this, COVID recommendations were only voluntary which also meant that there were no penalties for failing to follow them.