Concern increases on delay of OSHA COVID-19 standard

With Biden Administration action nearly three weeks overdue, advocacy organizations warn that “workers can’t wait.”

By Tony Silber      
OSHA guidelines

It’s been nearly three weeks since the Biden Administration missed a self-imposed deadline for issuing an emergency temporary standard laying out enforceable standards for workplace safety from COVID-19, and concern among occupational safety and health advocates is ramping up.

“Workers can’t wait,” Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of National Council for Occupational Safety and Health said in a statement on Wednesday. “We know that workers still face the risk of COVID-19 infections in their workplaces, and we know that these infections can spread to neighborhoods, families and communities.”

On January 21st, its first day in office, the administration issued an executive order that required the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to, “Consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary, and if such standards are determined to be necessary, issue them by March 15, 2021.”

The order also called for a review of OSHA enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 and to identify any short, medium, and long-term changes that could better protect workers and ensure equity in enforcement.

Labor and progressive organizations have indicated that they expect the ETS to also guarantee pay and benefits to workers who take leave due to potential COVID-19 exposures or diagnoses.

Now, with mid-April approaching, the media and advocacy groups are wondering what’s causing the delay. “The standard needs to be issued within the next few weeks,” Debbie Berkowitz, worker safety and health program director at the National Employment Law Project. “If this desperately-needed regulation comes in two months, that would be a tragedy.”

As it is, Virginia and California have already issued state-level standards that are working, Berkowitz said, and an emergency rule is essential in helping essential workers, including those in sectors such as meat and poultry, and retail, who are continuing to get sick.

In early February, OSHA issued amplified workplace safety guidelines for protecting against COVID, after a period when, according to critics, OSHA was sidelined during the Trump Administration.

The difference between the February guidelines and the actual standard is that a standard would have the force of law and strengthened enforcement. ““Vaccines are a great step forward,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, also a co-executive director of National COSH. “But right now only one out of five Americans is fully vaccinated—and many frontline workers have been left out.”