Workplace safety and health organizations acknowledged the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) updated guidance on protecting employees from COVID-19 exposures as an important first step but reiterated their support for an enforceable emergency temporary standard (ETS).
“For nearly a year, NSC has been urging the federal government to provide employers with a roadmap for handling the pandemic,” John Dony, senior director of thought leadership at the National Safety Council (NSC), said in an e-mail response.
“NSC continues to support the creation of a federal Emergency Temporary Standard to clearly state necessary response measures for COVID-19. While we see many employers continuing to take the right actions to protect workers, clear direction to businesses will help them implement life-saving protocols,” Dony continued.
The NSC expects more to come from OSHA and the Department of Labor as a whole. “We know this is the first step of guidance from an administration that has only been on the job for a little over a week,” Dony said.
The January 29 guidance pulls much of the guidance available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website into a single document, American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) President Deborah R. Roy pointed out in an e-mail.
“Unfortunately, not all employers have implemented the longstanding guidance from the CDC, and this became apparent as surges occurred in different parts of the country, resulting in thousands of workers becoming ill or dying from the disease,” Roy said.
Roy pointed out that information in the federal guidance about engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE) is not systematically organized and suggested the document should include a “hierarchy of controls” infographic.
Graphics for the hierarchy of controls use an inverted pyramid to illustrate that the elimination of hazards and then substitution should be implemented first; then engineering controls; then administrative controls and work practices; and finally, PPE. The new guidance also failed to include the risk categories listed in OSHA’s initial “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” issued in early 2020, Roy noted.
The agency still needs to create an enforceable standard, according to the ASSP’s Roy.
“OSHA regulations are the basic requirements to protect workers from harm, and for some employers, basic compliance is the highest bar they will implement. In those cases, an enforceable standard is needed.”
“It also creates a baseline for other employers who can and will go beyond that level but want to know that the industry has a similar burden of regulation,” Roy said.
A federal standard also would help employers with facilities in multiple states, she said. California, Michigan, and Oregon all have their own ETSs, and Virginia just established a permanent COVID-19 infectious disease standard. Requirements differ among the four state standards.
The federal guidance includes a recommendation that employers provide or coordinate COVID-19 vaccination at no cost to employees. It also recommends establishing prevention programs that involve conducting workplace hazard assessments; identifying and implementing infection control measures; adopting policies that encourage potentially infected workers to remain at home; and setting up workplace communication, training, and antiretaliation programs.