On Friday, the House Education & Labor Committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee will hold a hearing on “Protecting Workers from COVID-19: Monitoring the Status of OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard.” This is not a hearing that should be necessary, because on January 21, President Biden signed an executive order directing 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.”
It’s clear that we do need regulations to protect workers from COVID-19. Of the more than half a million US COVID-19 deaths, many were among workers who couldn’t do their jobs from home and caught the virus while doing work that enables the rest of us to keep functioning—including jobs in healthcare, emergency response, agriculture, meatpacking, grocery stores, warehouses, restaurants, transit, janitorial services, and childcare. Because of structural racism, workers in these essential jobs are more likely to be Black and Hispanic, and their disproportionate occupational risks are a major reason for the racial inequities in COVID-19 diagnoses, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Several states have recognized the urgent need to reduce workers’ coronavirus exposure. Virginia created a temporary rule and then made it permanent, while Michigan, California, Washington, and Oregon have all adopted emergency temporary standards. Given the Trump administration’s demonstrated preference for ignoring evidence that suggests the need to regulate, I didn’t expect them to take this kind of step. But three months into the Biden administration, I thought we’d have an emergency OSHA standard to protect workers from COVID-19.
Timothy Noah reports in The New Republic that OSHA has drafted two emergency standards (one specific to healthcare workers, the other not), but “the White House, fearful of setting off angry protests, is dithering.” David Michaels, who headed OSHA during the Obama administration and is now a professor at George Washington University (where I also work), told Noah that he fears White House officials think we’ll be able to stem the pandemic with vaccinations alone—but that isn’t enough:
Four months into a fairly successful vaccination effort, Covid-19 cases are going up, not down, and they’ve been doing so for four weeks. More transmissible Covid variants have taken hold—with B.1.1.7. being the most widespread—accounting for the majority of new Covid cases in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, and Tennessee. Businesses are opening back up, and in March the economy added a stunning 916,000 jobs. That’s a sign that the public health crisis is ebbing. (Hooray!) But this reopening poses health dangers of its own if those returning workers aren’t protected sufficiently from Covid-19. “If we don’t control workplace transmissions,” Michaels said, “the pandemic will continue to worsen.”
Noah also looked to Debbie Berkowitz, who served as chief of staff and senior policy advisor at OSHA during the Obama administration and now runs the worker health and safety program for the National Employment Law Project. She pointed out that in Michigan, where COVID-19 cases are showing an alarming rise, nearly half of new COVID clusters are in workplaces.
Not everyone will be able to get vaccinated quickly, and access is particularly challenging for workers dealing with inflexible schedules, transportation or childcare challenges, or difficulties accessing online registration portals. Although vaccination is open to all adults regardless of immigration status, those with limited documentation or English can face hurdles when they show up for shots. Vaccine inequity has been a persistent problem, so employers can’t simply assume all their workers will soon have immunity—and although the data on vaccines’ safety and effectiveness are impressive, the vaccines aren’t 100% protective. It’s still essential for employers to reduce workers’ potential exposures via ventilation, distancing, protective gear, and other measures.
Fear of backlash from employers, and from politicians who seem to prefer the partisan boost from opposing a Democratic administration to saving their constituents’ lives, is likely the main reason for this standard’s delay. But it also doesn’t help that CDC hasn’t issued new guidance recognizing the now-extensive evidence that the coronavirus is transmitted via aerosols—tiny particles that are so small they can hang in the air for hours. In a Politico opinion piece, Michaels and co-authors Donald K. Milton and Lisa M. Brosseau explain, “A failure by the CDC to provide an updated and consistent science-based explanation of how the virus spreads will lead to more confusion and will undermine public acceptance of CDC and OSHA recommendations.”
Back in February, National Nurses United and 44 allied unions and organizations (including my organization, the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health) submitted a petition with over 10,000 signatures urging CDC to fully recognize aerosol transmission. “The CDC’s failure up to this point to recognize aerosols as the primary mode of transmission hurts all other guidance and efforts that stem from this lack of understanding,” said NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo.
Both agencies have taken other steps that will help protect workers; CDC has issued updated workplace guidance, and OSHA issued its largest-yet fine against an employer for a COVID-19- related violation, in what appears to be a signal of more aggressive enforcement. But to truly protect workers, we needed aerosol guidance from CDC and an emergency standard from OSHA. I hope to see both in the coming weeks.