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After Missing Deadline, OSHA Issues Emergency Temporary Standard on COVID-19 with Scope Limited to Health Care

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration issues emergency temporary standard on COVID-19, but limits it to certain health care settings
  • General workplace guidance updated, including recommendations for industries where workers are considered to be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19
  • Standard comes nearly three months past deadline set by White House

Summary by Dirk Langeveld

Nearly three months past White House deadline, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued an emergency temporary standard on COVID-19. The standard is limited to certain health care settings, with OSHA issuing optional guidance for other industries where workers are considered to be at a higher risk of COVID-19.

OSHA said the emergency temporary standard aims to protect health care workers, especially those most likely to have contact with a person who has been infected with COVID-19. It establishes new requirements applicable to employees providing health care or health care support services, including hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, emergency responders, and employees in ambulatory care settings where suspected or confirmed coronavirus patients are treated. Some exemptions are provided for health care providers who screen out patients who may have COVID-19.

These employers are required to conduct a hazard assessment, have a written plan to mitigate the spread of the virus, provide certain employees with N95 respirators or other personal protective equipment, maintain social distancing and erect barriers where possible, and provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects.

OSHA says that any workers in the industries who contract COVID-19 or may be contagious should work from home if possible, or given time off and paid up to $1,400 per week. The agency notes that businesses with fewer than 500 employees qualify for tax credits under the American Rescue Plan and can be reimbursed for providing paid time off related to COVID-19.

Fully vaccinated workers in the covered health care settings are exempted from masking and social distancing requirements when in “well-defined areas where there is no reasonable expectation that any person will be present with suspected or confirmed coronavirus.”

The standard will be updated as necessary to align with changes in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. Employers must comply with most provisions within two weeks.

OSHA’s update was met with some criticism that it did not provide enough protections for other industries considered to have a higher risk for COVID-19 infection. Instead of further emergency temporary standards, OSHA updated its guidance to focus on protections for unvaccinated workers or other at-risk individuals and specific recommendations for workplaces where employees are in close contact, including meat processing, manufacturing, seafood, grocery, and high-volume retail.

In these workplaces, OSHA recommends tactics such as staggering arrival, departure, and break times; providing signs and floor markings as reminder of social distancing; requiring customers to wear masks; and shifting primary stocking activities among retail workers to off-peak or after hours.

Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden directed OSHA to issue any recommended temporary emergency standards by March 15. The executive order followed criticism by labor leaders that OSHA had been lax in overseeing COVID-19 safety measures under the Trump administration, which had relaxed reporting requirements and limited safety inspections to certain higher risk businesses.

The limited update in OSHA guidance comes as states relax restrictions related to COVID-19 amid ongoing vaccination efforts. The CDC relaxed its guidance on months last month, saying fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear them in social settings.

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