Douglas L. Parker, assistant secretary in charge of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), recently sought to minimize the damage done by the Supreme Court’s decision blocking the agency’s attempt to fulfill President Biden’s order requiring all employers in the United States have their employees vaccinated against COVID-19.
“COVID-19 has been the occupational health issue of our time,” he noted in recent testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee. He added that his agency is “working to finalize a permanent COVID-19 standard to ensure healthcare workers are protected as long as COVID-19 is a threat.”
Sworn in as the new head of OSHA last November, Parker previously served as the chief of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) and as deputy assistant secretary for policy for Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) during the Obama administration.
At the hearing, he described the development of an infectious disease standard to apply to high-risk workplaces as a top priority for the agency. Had one been in place prior to the pandemic, he argued, “OSHA would have been in a better position to address COVID.”
However, he did not provide a target date for when the new standard would be issued. Unlike the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) on COVID that was met with such fierce opposition and was struck down by the Supreme Court, this time the agency will follow all of the notice and public comment procedures normally required for the development of a federal regulation.
This delay does not mean OSHA is waiting for the new rule to take action on COVID, he pointed out to the legislators. Since early 2021, agency staff have conducted 1,826 COVID-19 related inspections in healthcare facilities, with an additional 701 inspections conducted by state plans. The agency also has responded to complaints filed by workers in other industries.
In addition, Parker observed that in March OSHA launched a COVID-19 enforcement initiative to focus on evaluating and ensuring the readiness of hospitals and skilled nursing care facilities to protect workers in the event of surges in COVID-19 patients.
“While COVID-19 remains a priority, we are also looking ahead to ensure workers in the highest risk workplaces are protected against future infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics,” Parker said. “Those efforts include developing an infectious disease standard to ensure healthcare workers are protected in future pandemics and developing infectious disease preparedness training so all workplaces can be more prepared.”
Attorneys for the Seyfarth Shaw law firm commented that “employers may be happy to hear that OSHA is not planning to propose a permanent COVID-19 vaccinate-or-test regulation similar to the ETS stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 13, 2022.”
Parker also took his testimony as an opportunity to inform the representatives about some of OSHA’s other top priorities for the near future. These include a new indoor and outdoor heat standard, addressing workplace violence in healthcare, and bolstering recordkeeping regulations.
He also thanked the members of the Education and Labor Committee for providing more than $100 million in supplemental funding through the American Rescue Plan legislation that he said will help support and strengthen OSHA’s enforcement and regulatory efforts, which he said lacked needed resources during the Trump administration.
Parker informed the committee that his agency also is working to expand and diversify its staff through recruitment and workforce development and is preparing to pilot an apprenticeship program to develop safety technicians into future inspectors. He also said OSHA has launched new intensive leadership training to ensure that it has a pipeline of future senior managers “equipped to make OSHA a more resilient, innovative and effective agency.”