Public Health Experts Urge Action Before Next Pandemic Wave

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should establish federal workplace standards regarding ventilation, appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), physical distancing, and other basic public health precautions in anticipation of future surges in COVID-19 infections, according to a group of public health experts.  

In a report titled “Getting to and Sustaining the Next Normal: A Roadmap for Living with COVID,” the group laid out a series of workplace safety strategic goals for OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The report’s authors included Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a former member of President Joe Biden’s transition COVID-19 advisory panel, and Rick A. Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

“Failure to control workplace exposures has wreaked havoc on the workforce,” the group says. “The results have been catastrophic for many who cannot work remotely.”

The group called on OSHA to update its employer guidance and internal enforcement directives to emphasize the importance of aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). The agency should stress the need for employers to implement a comprehensive, layered approach to limiting workplace exposures, including effective ventilation and air filtration and appropriate respiratory protection.

OSHA also should incorporate ventilation and air filtration requirements for indoor work environments into federal standards and employer guidance on preventing transmission of COVID-19 and other airborne infectious diseases, according to the group.

The report’s other recommendations for OSHA include:

  • Requiring all establishments participating in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) or Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) to ensure all workers are fully vaccinated, with exceptions only for medical and religious reasons;
  • Issuing new respiratory viral illness recordkeeping and reporting requirements, including employer reporting of respiratory viral clusters and outbreaks in their workplaces;
  • Requiring that employers provide high-quality face coverings—N95 respirators or equivalent—to workers in high-risk environments;
  • Issuing an enforcement directive clarifying that the agency’s current respiratory protection standard requires employers in high-risk industries to provide at least N95 respirators in situations in which risk of airborne infectious disease transmission is high or where indoor working conditions are crowded or public-facing; and
  • Issuing an enforcement directive enabling employers to require N95 face covering use by workers not normally covered by the respiratory protection standard without triggering the need for full respiratory protection standard compliance and emphasizing that employer mitigation measures must go beyond providing respirators and include a layered approach to reducing workplace exposure risk.

The group also called for OSHA to issue a permanent COVID-19 standard covering all healthcare workplaces, including respiratory protection and ventilation requirements, and mandating medical removal protection pay if a person is required to not work because of illness. OSHA recently reopened comment on a rulemaking based on the agency’s June 21, 2021, healthcare COVID-19 emergency temporary standard (ETS).

The group recommended that OSHA also establish a permanent infectious disease standard to protect workers in health care and other industries. OSHA has an infectious disease rulemaking aimed at healthcare facilities, as well as coroners’ offices, correctional facilities, drug treatment programs, emergency response, homeless shelters, medical examiners, medical laboratories, pathologists, and mortuaries.

The report recommended that NIOSH implement a national surveillance program for occupational infectious diseases in coordination with OSHA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE). It also suggested that the CDC increase its collection of infection and vaccination data on workers employed in high-risk industries.

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