OSHA Issues Emergency Temporary Standard for COVID-19

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The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for COVID-19, covering health care workers.  This ruling comes after extensive lobbying since March last year by the National Nurses Union (NNU) and other representative organizations.

COVID ETS covers health care workers

These federal temporary emergency workplace safety rules apply to most settings where health care services or health support services are provided, including home health services.  Some settings are excluded, including retail pharmacies and medical and dental offices. Some employers may qualify for an exemption, for example, ambulatory settings where all staff has been vaccinated and non-employees entering the premises are screened.

Jim Frederick, the acting administrator of OSHA, estimated that compliance with the rules would protect around 10.3 million employees. This is the first binding requirement issued by OSHA relating to workplace safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, although it had previously issued various recommendations.

There has been considerable criticism that the ETS applies only to health care workers, but OSHA had determined that a healthcare-specific standard would have the most significant impact.  An ETS is only issued after OSHA has determined that workers are in “grave danger” from exposure to toxic substances or a new hazard.

Provisions of the ETS

Some of the provisions of the ETS are:

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  • A COVID-19 plan for each workplace, with input from non-managerial employees and the appointment of workplace COVID-19 coordinators to implement and monitor the plan.
  • Supply of PPE and frequency of replacement, appropriate for the hazards to which the employee is exposed. For example, respirators and other PPE must be provided for those working in close contact with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients. The employer must also provide training and ensure proper fit and use of PPE.
  • Enabling physical distancing whenever feasible could include providing barriers, telehealth services, and planning staggered work times and breaks.
  • Employees must be notified of exposure to confirmed cases and receive full compensation and benefits while in isolation or quarantine and for required tests.
  • Full support for employee vaccination. This includes time off for the vaccination and recovery time if there are side effects.
  • Ensuring that ventilation systems are working correctly.
  •  An anti-retaliation clause, protecting employees who lodge complaints against their employer not meeting the standards.

NNU Reaction

For the past 15 months, through lobbying, petitions, and protests, National Nurses United had been at the forefront of calls for OSHA to issue an ETS. They have welcomed the eventual issuing of the standard as a highly significant message to employers.

While the ETS has been issued at a very late stage of the pandemic, NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez explained that nurses and other frontline health care providers were still in danger, especially with the relaxation of safety measures across the country.

“This standard is a testimony to the advocacy of registered nurses and our allies across the country who have fought with employers to demand safer workplaces,” said Bonnie Castillo, Executive Director of NNU.  “We now have an additional legal sanction for employers who continue to put their profits and budget goals over worker and patient safety.”

Castillo further believes that this emergency standard, a first in many respects, has laid the groundwork for a permanent OSHA standard on infectious diseases to cover future epidemics. The current emergency standard is valid for six months after which it could be made permanent.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

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