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OSHA sends standard on COVID-19 for health care to OMB for final review

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Washington — OSHA submitted its permanent standard on COVID-19 for the health care industry to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final review Dec. 7.

The review by the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is one of the final steps in the regulatory process before publication of the final rule in the Federal Register. The timeline for completion of the review is unclear.

OSHA has been working on a permanent standard on COVID-19 focused on health care workers for nearly a year, since withdrawing the non-recordkeeping portions of an emergency temporary standard Dec. 27. To put that into perspective, the average timeline for a typical standard from OSHA is around seven years, according to a 2012 Government Accountability Office study.

Also uncertain is what the final standard will contain, but it could mirror the ETS. The ETS applied to “settings where any employees provide health care or health care support services,” such as hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Some exceptions were made for “nonhospital ambulatory care settings” where nonemployees are screened for COVID-19 before entering and individuals suspected of having or are confirmed to have COVID-19 aren’t allowed to enter.

When the ETS was published in June 2021, OSHA published a flowchart to help workplaces determine if they were covered under the regulation.

The ETS required covered facilities to have a COVID-19 plan (in writing if an employer had more than 10 employees) that included a designated safety coordinator with the “authority to ensure compliance.” Also required: Conducting a workplace-specific hazard assessment, monitoring and limiting points of entry in areas where direct patient care is provided, and developing and implementing policies and procedures to limit COVID-19 transmission.

Workers in facilities covered under the ETS had to be supplied with N95 respirators or other personal protective equipment when they were indoors, in a vehicle with other people for work purposes, or around people who were suspected of having or confirmed to have COVID-19. Their employers had to ensure workers remained 6 feet apart, or had to erect “cleanable or disposable solid barriers” when that wasn’t feasible.

Employers had to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for cleaning and disinfection, and ensure ventilation systems were used properly, among other steps.

The ETS also required employers to provide workers with paid time off if they became sick, when they received a vaccine or if they needed to recover from any side effects from a vaccine. Employees who contracted COVID-19 or were contagious had to work remotely or “otherwise be separated from other workers if possible, or be given paid time off up to $1,400 per week.”

In a Dec. 8 press release, labor union National Nurses United President Deborah Burger applauds OSHA for “fulfilling its commitment” and asks OIRA to complete the review as soon as possible.

“Protecting nurses and other health care workers is of paramount importance as we face an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations, in addition to high and increasing influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) hospitalizations,” Burger said. “The pandemic is not over. We need a permanent standard to ensure that health care employers will protect all health care workers so they can do their jobs safely and so patients can get the care that they need.”

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