Recent actions by federal agencies will shape return-to-work policies

The CDC relaxes rules for fully vaccinated people, while OSHA is about to issue emergency guidelines for the workplace.

By Tony Silber      

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued public-health recommendations for fully vaccinated people that dramatically alter the landscape in a country that’s been struggling with pandemic for nearly a year and a half.

Now, according to the CDC, fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. They can also resume domestic travel and refrain from testing before or after travel or self-quarantine after travel, among other relaxed restrictions.

The CDC’s move obviously applies to the workplace, where organizations everywhere are planning return-to-work strategies. The agency charged with protecting workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, acknowledged the CDC’s recommendations in a statement on its COVID-19 page, noting that it is “reviewing the recent CDC guidance and will update our materials on this website accordingly.”

CDC’s updated guidelines for fully vaccinated people.

OSHA is also expected imminently to issue emergency workplace rules, called an emergency temporary standard. The agency sent a draft ETS to the Office of Management and Budget on April 26. As states proceed with lifting mask rules and other restrictions, and businesses bring employees back to work in person, the upcoming OSHA standard will be watched closely. There is widespread speculation as to what might be in the ETS.

For example, OSHA could base its standards on those from states that have already issued their own standards, including California and Virginia.

The standards might include specific requirements related to respiratory protection as a result of the CDC’s recent update acknowledging that aerosol inhalation is a significant transmission source.  Consequently, employers need to improve ventilation systems. The rules might also cover who should wear masks, and whether employers can require vaccination as a condition of return—and if the vaccination needs to be verified.

OSHA hasn’t issued an ETS in 38 years. It was related to asbestos and overruled in the courts a few month later.