COVID-19 and OSHA regulations

Most everyone involved in workplace safety, health and well-being have experienced conversations and workloads monopolized by issues related to the novel coronavirus. Traditionally in the United States, we have looked to our partners at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), or Oregon OSHA in our state, to find enforceable workplace safety and health regulations. Often we have identified OSHA rules as the “floor” (you gotta do it or can get penalized monetarily) with the encouragement to reach for the “ceiling” or best and better practices, sometimes evidenced by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and and Health (NIOSH) and other science-based organizations.

As employees in our country began showing signs of COVID-19 infection, we relied on tips and practices first shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and NIOSH, along with guidelines shared by other groups including state health authorities and professional societies, like the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the National Safety Council (NSC). While some employers have responded quickly by following practices to limit or prevent the spread of infection at work, others have struggled to meet recommended guidelines, and some have been reported to ignore doing what would guard the health of their employees. Here in Oregon, Oregon OSHA’s phone has at times “rung off the hook” with complaints expressed by employees who did not feel safe at work due to worries about COVID-19 exposure, leading Oregon OSHA to encourage those with concerns to file complaints online.

Earlier this spring, Oregon OSHA issued a temporary rule addressing the COVID-19 emergency in employer-provided housing, labor-intensive agricultural operations, and agricultural transportation. This Administrative Order was filed on April 28, 2020 at the requests and demands of workplace advocates concerned about the significant threat of the novel coronavirus to those working in agriculture, including those living in employer-provided housing. Oregon OSHA has also created a page addressing questions and answers, some related to specific industries, and useful to all employers, workplace advocates and employees at this time.

Last week, Virginia became the first state to adopt an emergency temporary standard that extends beyond federal OSHA’s non-mandatory guidance. This first-in-the-nation safety rule mandates appropriate personal protective equipment, sanitation, social distancing, infectious disease preparedness and response plans, record keeping, training and hazard communications in workplaces across Virginia. The actions come in the absence of specific federal requirements. Our state of Oregon looks to be the next state to create applicable rules as Oregon OSHA has announced it is working to draft and adopt temporary COVID-19 rules with a target effective date of September 1, 2020. Oregon OSHA anticipates establishing two rules to address infectious disease in the workplace, with one pertaining to healthcare (and related activities), and the other pertaining to all other workplaces. These two rules will be effective September 1, 2020 and remain in effect until February 28, 2021 at which time a permanent rules is intended to be in place.  Development of the emergency temporary standards, and the permanent standards are considered two different projects with the temporary standard being more closely tailored to our current pandemic. No other states have passed similar standards, but some, such as Michigan, have issued executive orders aimed at the same workplace safety goals.

Oregon OSHA is now collaborating and consulting with experts and stakeholders as they form the specifics for the temporary rules. They have begun facilitating targeted virtual forums, and plan to circulate a draft rule(s) prior to adoption. Last week, Oregon OSHA also released a technical paper addressing anticipated concerns, and questions for stakeholders to consider. Earlier this week Oregon OSHA participated in a forum organized by Oregon AFL-CIO in an effort to share front line worker feedback, including written record of dozens of individual worker testimonies. This is a fast track for rule development, so anyone interested in the development of these rules should put this on the top of their list to learn more about and share feedback. In the meantime, employers in Oregon can be sure to follow the Interim Guidance regarding COVID-19. Potential exposures to the coronavirus won’t be leaving us anytime soon, and we appreciate leadership from Oregon OSHA, along with collaboration of other technical experts and stakeholders, to learn ways to best protect our workforce, their families and all our communities.

Image credit: Kerr Contractors

Resources

Initial Issue Paper on Oregon OSHA Infectious Disease Rulemaking for the General Workplace (July 15, 2020, Oregon OSHA)

Temporary rule addressing the COVID-19 emergency in employer-provided house, labor-intensive agriculture operations, and agriculture transportation. (Oregon OSHA)

General guidance and information about COVID-19 from Oregon OSHA in English and Spanish.

Oregon Governor Brown’s July 24, 2020 update including updated mask rules.

COVID-19 and the World of Work

 

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