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Is an airborne pathogens standard on OSHA’s horizon? NIOSH director sees the potential

Dr. John Howard 2

Itasca, IL — A next step for OSHA – after possibly issuing an emergency temporary standard related to COVID-19, which could come in a matter of weeks or days – may be initiating rulemaking on an infectious diseases standard.

Speaking during a press conference March 3 at the virtual National Safety Council Safety Congress & Expo, NIOSH Director John Howard noted that one potential path is for an infectious diseases standard aimed at combating airborne pathogens or aerosol transmissible diseases, much like a California rule that went into effect in 2009.

“You can bundle them in terms of methodologies you would use in the workplace,” he said.

OSHA began working on an infectious diseases standard during the Obama administration, but that work stalled during the Trump administration. The agency already has a standard to help workplaces guard against bloodborne pathogens such as HIV and hepatitis.

President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order on Jan. 21 directing OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration to consider ETSs related to COVID-19 and, if determined to be necessary, issue them by March 15.

“If anybody thinks this pandemic is the last one that we’re going to experience, I think they’re not living in the real world,” Howard said. “To think this is now done and we’re never going to see another coronavirus come up or we’re not going to see another virus come up, that’s not planning for the future.”

Navigating vaccination issues

Employers may face a number of difficulties when it comes workers choosing whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19, NSC President and CEO Lorraine M. Martin said during the press conference.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued recent guidance to help employers, but “it doesn’t mean it answers every complexity that your workplace might have to traverse,” she said.

NSC advises organizations to seek counsel from their human resources and legal departments. Martin added that employers have “a great opportunity” to help employees feel comfortable about getting vaccinated and provide them with related information to make informed decisions.

Ventilation guidance

Howard highlighted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent guidance on ventilation in buildings, a potential key step in helping employees return to the workplace. The guidance includes ways to improve ventilation and provides answers to a series of frequently asked questions.

“Ventilation dynamics is vital in keeping indoor spaces safe,” Howard said.

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