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Secretary Walsh: OSHA’s forthcoming ETS to cover health care workers

April 28 hearing
Photo: House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee

Washington — Health care workers will be the focus of OSHA’s emergency temporary standard on COVID-19, which will be issued June 10, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told the House Education and Labor Committee during a June 9 hearing.

“Science tells us that health care workers, particularly those who have come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for COVID-19, are most at risk, “ Walsh said. “OSHA has tailored a rule that reflects the reality on the ground.”

OSHA’s ETS was under a required review by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, but Walsh said that review was completed June 9. President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order Jan. 21 that directed OSHA to consider an ETS and issue it by March 15 if considered necessary.

During the hearing, Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) asked why the March 15 deadline wasn’t met and why other industries, such as meatpacking plants and correctional facilities, aren’t covered under the ETS.

Walsh responded by pointing out that he was sworn in as Labor Secretary on March 23 – while work on the standard was taking place – and then mentioned the evolving nature of the pandemic, as indicated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidance issued May 16.

“I wanted to get the most up-to-date information (after starting as labor secretary),” he said. “I was working with the CDC and across [Department of Labor] departments. When we finally got the information, as we sent [the ETS] over for review, then the CDC made some changes as far as the workplace and masks and things like that.”

During his opening statement, Walsh added that OSHA will release updated guidance for other industries, “which also reflects the CDC’s latest guidance and tells employers how to protect workers who have not yet been vaccinated.”

The decision to have the ETS cover only health care workers drew criticism from some organizations, including the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“With highly transmissible variants posing a threat to public health, uneven vaccination rates and the relaxation of previous requirements, this is no time to let down our guard,” UCS Executive Director Kathleen Rest said in a June 9 press release. “Infection rates are declining, but the pandemic is not over. All workers deserve a safe environment with science-based protections from COVID-19. An emergency temporary standard is critical for protecting our health care workers, but it cannot leave behind other essential frontline workers. No worker should have to choose between their health and a paycheck.”

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