EHS Administration, Emergency Preparedness and Response

Former OSHA Chief: Agency Should Prepare for Next Pandemic

In a June 16 viewpoint article in JAMA, David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, wrote the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should take steps to better protect workers in future pandemics, including issuing a federal pandemic preparedness standard.

Michaels, who served under President Barack Obama, was OSHA’s longest-serving administrator. He’s an epidemiologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, and his coauthor, Gregory Wagner, is an adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

OSHA was limited in its power and made little impact on worker protection during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Michaels and Wagner, and “essential workers” in agriculture, corrections, meat processing, transportation, and warehousing faced unnecessarily high levels of risk.

Recommendations for better protecting workers in future pandemics include:

  • The federal government should provide more resources to OSHA and establish federal requirements for employers to offer paid medical leave.
  • Employers should improve workplace ventilation, filtration, and disinfection; reduce crowding; and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) such as respirators.
  • OSHA should issue pandemic preparedness standards, conduct more inspections, and hand out tougher penalties.
  • State and local public health agencies should be empowered to protect people while they’re at work and should commit to protecting those disproportionately at risk.

Last year, a panel of public health experts called on OSHA to establish federal workplace standards regarding ventilation, appropriate PPE, physical distancing, and other basic precautions in anticipation of future surges in COVID-19 infections.

The Lancet COVID-19 Commission’s Task Force on Safe Work, Safe School, and Safe Travel, a nongovernmental task force, recommended that building owners begin taking steps to address SARS-CoV-2 infection risks in schools and workplaces, such as verifying building systems are performing as designed, increasing outdoor air ventilation, upgrading air filtration, and deploying portable air cleaners where needed.

OSHA has no rulemaking for a pandemic preparedness standard. The closest regulatory action is a rulemaking for an industry-specific standard for infectious diseases in healthcare settings. The standard could apply in correctional facilities, coroners’ offices, drug treatment programs, emergency response, homeless shelters, medical examiners, medical laboratories, mortuaries, and pathologists. However, OSHA hasn’t suggested application of an infectious disease standard in meatpacking, transportation, and warehousing.

The agency has developed a standard for occupational exposure to COVID-19 in healthcare settings but hasn’t issued a final rule. On December 7, 2022, OSHA submitted the rule to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for regulatory review. The OIRA last held a stakeholder meeting concerning the rule on February 2. The rule would be based on OSHA’s 2021 healthcare emergency temporary standard (ETS).

Issues raised by OSHA during the public comment period included:

  • A trigger for requirements based on community transmission levels;
  • Application of the rule for new strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus;
  • Flexibility for employers, restating some of the emergency rule’s provisions as broader requirements without the level of detail used in the healthcare ETS; and
  • Relaxing some requirements (such as barriers, masking, and physical distancing) for facilities in which a high percentage of staff are vaccinated.

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