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OSHA Issues Covid Workplace Safety Rule, but Only for Health Care

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The labor protection agency announced on Thursday a rule setting out the steps employers must take to protect workers from the risk of Covid-19, but it will only apply to the healthcare industry and not to other high-risk jobs, such as the Biden Administration initially specified.

“Science tells us that health workers, especially those who come into regular contact with the virus, are most at risk at this point in the pandemic,” Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh said on a call with reporters. “After a thorough review of the science and data, OSHA determined that a specific health care safety requirement will have the greatest impact.”

The rule stipulates that health care employers, among other things, provide protective equipment such as masks, examine and classify patients for the risk of Covid-19, and ensure adequate ventilation and distance. It will also require these employers to give workers adequate paid time off to receive vaccinations and manage their side effects.

Fully vaccinated workers do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing when in well-defined areas where people are unlikely to suffer from Covid-19.

Mr. Walsh, whose division includes OSHA, said the administration is issuing optional guidelines to non-healthcare employers that would focus on jobs in the manufacturing, meat processing, food and retail industries.

Groups focused on worker issues criticized the decision to limit the rule known as the emergency standard to healthcare employers, arguing that the virus continues to pose serious risks to other workers.

“We know that workers in many industries outside of healthcare have been at increased risk of Covid,” wrote Debbie Berkowitz, a senior OSHA official under the Obama administration who is now on the National Employment Law Project, in an e- Mail. “Especially in low-wage industries such as meat processing, blacks and browns are worked disproportionately.”

She added: “We need to ensure that these workers continue to be protected through mitigation measures.”

Some union leaders expressed frustration that the Biden government had abandoned its earlier plans.

“Today’s new OSHA Covid Occupational Safety Standard represents a broken promise to the millions of American grocery and meat packer workers who have fallen ill and died on the front lines of this pandemic,” said Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union , it said in a statement.

Ms. Berkowitz and Mr. Perrone had expressed the hope that Mr. Biden would take a different course than his predecessor, after which OSHA refused to issue a standard on Covid-19.

During the Trump administration, OSHA passed a policy to largely limit Covid-related inspections to a small number of high-risk industries such as healthcare and emergency aid. Meat wrap was not included in this high-risk group – studies showed it was a major source of virus transmission.

Some labor groups praised OSHA under President Donald J. Trump for enforcing health care safety regulations, including proposed fines of over $ 1 million for violations in dozens of health and nursing homes. However, critics accused the agency of largely failing to punish meat processors for lax safety standards, such as a lack of adequate distancing from workers.

Mr Walsh said the risks for most non-healthcare workers had decreased as cases decreased and vaccination rates increased. He also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines last month, telling vaccinated individuals that they generally do not need to wear a mask indoors, played a role in OSHA’s decision on one dispense with the broader Covid-19 standard.

“OSHA has adjusted the rule to reflect the reality on the ground, the success of the vaccine effort, as well as the latest guidance from the CDC and the changing nature of the pandemic,” Walsh said on the call.

David Michaels, an OSHA chief during the Obama administration, said the CDC guidelines made it difficult to implement a broader OSHA rule. “In order to justify an emergency standard, OSHA needs to demonstrate that there is great danger,” said Dr. Michaels. “To do this, the CDC should have clarified its recommendation and said that there is a great danger for many workers.”

Without such clarification, said Dr. Michaels, now a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, would have employer groups likely challenged any new OSHA rule in court, arguing that the CDC guidelines indicated that a rule was unnecessary.

Dr. Michaels said the new standard was an overdue move, but it was disappointing that no Covid-specific standard had been issued for industries such as meat packaging, corrections and retail. “If exposure is not controlled in these workplaces, they will continue to be major drivers of infection,” he said.

Jim Frederick, the acting head of OSHA, said at the request that the agency had the authority to enforce protection for workers outside the health industry through its so-called general mandatory clause, and that it would continue to do so, even without issuing broader Covid rules You this.

He said many meat packers, along with other workplaces, had been inspected as part of an OSHA program that put high-risk industries under additional scrutiny.

OSHA submitted a draft emergency standard for review by a White House regulator in April, and the government has spent weeks meeting with workers and industry groups about the likely impact.

“As for the meetings,” said Frederick, “we attend these meetings, receive these comments and take them into account in the overall work of the agency.”

Employers have two weeks to comply with most of the rules.

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