OSHA issues new Covid-19 guidance for all industries, plus emergency temporary standard for healthcare workers

by Brianna Crandall — July 27, 2021 — In recent weeks, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced it had issued an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to protect healthcare workers from contracting coronavirus, as well as new Covid-19 general industry guidance to protect all workers. Both are aligned with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance.

Covid-19 general industry guidance

OSHA is issuing updated guidance to help employers and workers in other industries protect workers who are still not vaccinated, with a special emphasis on other industries noted for prolonged close contacts like meat processing, manufacturing, seafood, and grocery and high-volume retail.

Emergency temporary standard

The emergency temporary standard (ETS) focuses on healthcare workers most likely to have contact with someone infected with the virus.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh stated:

Too many of our frontline healthcare workers continue to be at high risk of contracting the coronavirus. As I said when I came to the department, we must follow the science. This standard follows the science, and will provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus while they provide us with critical healthcare services. Given the pace of vaccinations, this standard, along with the guidance OSHA, the CDC and other agencies have released, will help us protect frontline healthcare workers and end this pandemic once and for all.

The emergency temporary standard establishes new requirements for settings where employees provide healthcare or healthcare support services, including skilled nursing homes and home healthcare, with some exemptions for healthcare providers who screen out patients who may have Covid-19. OSHA will update the standard, if necessary, to align with CDC guidelines and changes in the pandemic.

Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick remarked:

This standard is necessary to give our healthcare workers deeply needed protections. This tailored standard allows OSHA to help the workers most in danger of contracting the virus, while the updated guidance will give other businesses across the country the information they need to help protect unvaccinated workers and continue mitigating spread in the workplace.

The healthcare emergency temporary standard is aimed at protecting workers facing the highest coronavirus hazards — those working in health care settings where suspected or confirmed coronavirus patients are treated. This includes employees in hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities; emergency responders; home healthcare workers; and employees in ambulatory care settings where suspected or confirmed coronavirus patients are treated.

The standard will require non-exempt facilities to conduct a hazard assessment and have a written plan to mitigate virus spread, and requires healthcare employers to provide some employees with N95 respirators or other personal protective equipment. In addition, covered employers must ensure 6 feet of distance between workers. In situations where this is not possible, employers should erect barriers between employees where feasible.

The standard also requires covered employees to provide workers with paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover from any side effects. Covered employees who have coronavirus or who may be contagious must work remotely or otherwise be separated from other workers if possible, or be given paid time off up to $1400 per week. For most businesses with fewer than 500 employees, tax credits in the American Rescue Plan may be reimbursed through these provisions.

The ETS exempts fully vaccinated workers from masking, distancing and barrier requirements when in well-defined areas where there is no reasonable expectation that any person will be present with suspected or confirmed coronavirus.

The ETS was effective immediately upon publication in the Federal Register on June 21, 2021. Employers were required to comply with most provisions by July 6, 2021, and with training, ventilation, and barrier provisions by July 21, 2021. OSHA will use its enforcement discretion to avoid citing employers who miss a compliance deadline but are making a good faith effort to comply with the ETS. OSHA will continue to monitor trends in coronavirus transmission.

Compliance directive for enforcing emergency temporary standard

OSHA subsequently issued a compliance directive designed to ensure uniform inspection and enforcement procedures for its emergency temporary standard to protect healthcare workers from occupational exposures to COVID-19.

The new directive provides OSHA compliance safety and health officers with guidance and procedures on how to enforce the standard’s requirements for:

  • Written COVID-19 plan
  • Patient/Non-employee screening and management
  • Personal protective equipment
  • Aerosol-generating procedures
  • Physical distancing
  • Physical barriers
  • Cleaning and disinfecting
  • Ventilation
  • Employee health screening and medical management
  • Vaccination
  • Training
  • Anti-retaliation
  • Requirements at no cost
  • Recordkeeping
  • Reporting to OSHA

Comment period extension for ETS

On July 8, OSHA announced that it will publish a notice in the Federal Register to extend the comment period for the Covid-19 healthcare emergency temporary standard (ETS) to August 20, 2021. OSHA is extending the comment period by 30 days to allow stakeholders additional time to review the ETS and collect information and data necessary for comment.

Comments can be submitted electronically for Docket No. OSHA-2020-0004 via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov. Follow the online instructions for making electronic submissions.

More information about the Covid-19 Healthcare Emergency Temporary Standard is available on the OSHA website.