Federal agencies Workplace exposures

OSHA denies AFL-CIO petition calling for an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases

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Washington — OSHA has denied an AFL-CIO petition that asks the agency to issue an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases amid the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, claiming the labor federation “lacks compelling evidence.”

Responding to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a letter dated May 29, acting OSHA administrator Loren Sweatt states that AFL-CIO’s March 6 petition and subsequent letters to Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia do not impel the agency to act.

“OSHA lacks evidence to conclude that all infectious diseases to which employees may be exposed at a workplace constitute a ‘grave danger’ for which an ETS is an appropriate remedy,” Sweatt writes. “Your petition does not explain how infectious diseases as a group pose a grave and urgent threat to workers, let alone provide compelling evidence that those diseases pose a grave danger to worker health.”

Trumka expressed his displeasure with the decision in a May 29 tweet.

“It’s disgraceful but not surprising that @OSHA_DOL rejected our petition for an ETS,” Trumka wrote. “It’s unconscionable the agency tasked [with] protecting workers thinks there’s a ‘lack of compelling evidence’ that a standard is needed. We’ll always fight for worker safety.”

The AFL-CIO led a coalition of 22 labor organizations in drafting the petition, writing that “millions of working people in the United States are at risk of facing a deadly coronavirus pandemic” as a result of a “significant and growing threat” to “health care workers, first responders, airline and other transportation workers, social service, and other public-facing workers.”

The labor federation on May 18 filed a lawsuit against OSHA and the Department of Labor, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to direct OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases. The AFL-CIO alleges in the lawsuit that “the COVID-19 global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has produced exactly the type of workplace catastrophe that Congress intended an emergency temporary standard to address.”

The AFL-CIO also contends in the lawsuit that a significant portion of workers infected or dying from COVID-19 are classified as essential workers, who face workplace hazards because of exposure to colleagues, patients and customers who may be sick or haven’t been screened for the respiratory illness before entering various workplaces.


In OSHA’s letter, Sweatt writes that “OSHA has determined that the best approach for responding to the pandemic is to enforce the existing OSH Act requirements that address infectious disease hazards, while also issuing detailed, industry-specific guidance that can be quickly amended and adjusted as its understanding of the virus grows. This approach is more effective than promulgating a rigid set of requirements for all employers in all industries based on limited information, and best utilizes OSHA resources.”

A standard on infectious diseases is listed among the “long-term actions” on DOL’s current regulatory agenda, indicating that no progress is expected in the near future.

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