After much speculation and many delays, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has finally announced it will issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to protect healthcare workers from contracting COVID-19. The standard focuses on healthcare workers most likely to have contact with someone infected with the virus. OSHA announced the new standard alongside new general industry guidance, both of which are aligned with Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance.
“Too many of our frontline healthcare workers continue to be at high risk of contracting the coronavirus,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. “This standard follows the science, and will provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus while they provide us with critical healthcare services. Given the pace of vaccinations, this standard, along with the guidance OSHA, the CDC and other agencies have released, will help us protect frontline healthcare workers and end this pandemic once and for all.”
Not good enough, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). “The Biden Administration has missed a crucial opportunity to protect all workers,” said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH. “This is a new insult on top of the injuries, illnesses and deaths suffered by frontline workers and their families. Vaccines have not reached all workers and COVID-19 is not over.”
However, Deborah Roy, president of American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), said that the ETS “is a necessary action that will help employers across the healthcare sector take vital measures to better protect some of our most vulnerable workers and ultimately save lives. While we are still analyzing the components of the standard, we know there are benefits to having a unified approach with requirements and guidance to lead healthcare facilities in the same direction to achieve safer and healthier work environments. The use of standards is an effective way to implement strong controls that improve occupational safety and health. We are immediately making ASSP members aware of this emergency temporary standard and are working to ensure that its application in healthcare settings is understood.”
The ETS, according to OSHA, establishes new requirements for settings where employees provide healthcare or healthcare support services, including skilled nursing homes and home healthcare, with some exemptions for healthcare providers who screen out patients who may have COVID-19. OSHA will update the standard, if necessary, to align with CDC guidelines and changes in the pandemic. In addition to the healthcare-focused ETS, OSHA is issuing updated guidance to help employers and workers in other industries protect workers who are still not vaccinated, with a special emphasis on other industries noted for prolonged close-contacts like meat processing, manufacturing, seafood, and grocery and high-volume retail.
The standard, OSHA explains, “will require non-exempt facilities to conduct a hazard assessment and have a written plan to mitigate virus spread, and requires healthcare employers to provide some employees with N95 respirators or other personal protective equipment. In addition, covered employers must ensure six feet of distance between workers. In situations where this is not possible, employers should erect barriers between employees where feasible.”
The healthcare ETS also requires covered employers to provide workers with paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover from any side effects. Covered employees who have COVID or who may be contagious must work remotely or otherwise be separated from other workers if possible, or be given paid time off up to $1,400 per week.
The ETS is effective immediately upon publication in the Federal Register. Employers must comply with most provisions within 14 days and with the remaining provisions within 30 days. OSHA says it will use its enforcement discretion “to avoid citing employers who miss a compliance deadline but are making a good faith effort to comply with the ETS.”