Federal COVID-19 Safety Rules Issued for Healthcare Workers

June 11, 2021 Updated: June 11, 2021

President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday issued rules aimed at keeping workers safe from the virus that causes COVID-19.

The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued the rules, formally known as an emergency temporary standard, for healthcare facilities. They do not apply to other businesses, though updated guidance was issued for non-healthcare companies.

The rules require each healthcare employer to develop and implement a COVID-19 plan for all of its workplaces, including policies and procedures to determine which workers have received a COVID-19 vaccine.

In general, healthcare employers must require employees to wear a mask, even if they’re fully vaccinated, per the standard. Masks can be ditched if fully vaccinated employees are in an area where there is “no reasonable expectation that any person will be present with suspected or confirmed” COVID-19, the disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, also known as the coronavirus.

Other pieces include: requiring employers provide workers paid time off both to get a COVID-19 vaccine and to recover from any side effects suffered after vaccination; mandating social distancing, or six feet of distance between people, in many situations and barriers when it is not; and requiring employers with more than 10 employees to keep a log that includes details of each instance an employee is COVID-19 positive, even if the case is not connected to exposure at work.

Healthcare facilities include hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. Workers who provide healthcare services at people’s homes are also governed by the regulations.

“Too many of our frontline healthcare workers continue to be at high risk of contracting the coronavirus,” Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said in a statement. “As I said when I came to the department, we must follow the science. This standard follows the science, and will provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus while they provide us with critical healthcare services.”

“This standard is necessary to give our healthcare workers deeply needed protections,” added Jim Frederick, acting assistance secretary of labor for OSHA.

The new rules stem from an executive order Biden issued on his first full day in office, directing the labor secretary, acting through OSHA, 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.”

OSHA had not issued such an emergency standard until this week since 1983, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Loren E. Sweatt, a health official during the Trump administration, told members of Congress last year that issuing such rules “at the same time that the healthcare industry is responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency is counterproductive to both the public health response and robust stakeholder engagement.”

“For example, the efforts employers would take to document compliance with such a standard would distract them from other vital response activities,” she added.

OSHA said in a letter to Congress last year that existing standards already imposed obligations on employers to protect workers from COVID-19, including requiring the use of gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection in a range of situations.

The new rules, which were issued after daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths plunged to lows not seen since the spring of 2020, drew both praise and criticism.

National Nurses United, a large union representing nurses, said the standard is “an important step forward that will contribute to safer health care settings for workers, patients, and communities.”

A preliminary review of the rules showed that they included “significant requirements that will protect nurses and other health care workers and patients, and some areas that can still be strengthened as OSHA conducts updates,” the group added in a statement.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-Va.), the ranking member on the House Education and Labor Committee, expressed support for how the rules did not apply to all businesses.

“We appreciate the Department of Labor refuted the ridiculous claims from Democrats and their union allies that all American workers are presently in grave danger from the virus,” she said in a statement. “Yet still, despite widespread vaccinations and COVID-19 cases at lows not seen since the beginning of the pandemic, OSHA caved to political pressure from special interests to adopt an emergency temporary standard (ETS) in the health care sector. Placing new and burdensome regulation on this heroic industry at this stage of the pandemic is completely unnecessary. Further, we cannot endorse an inflexible, restrictive regulation that is unable to keep up with the ever-evolving science regarding COVID-19.”

OSHA’s rules came after the Biden administration said this week that federal agencies generally shouldn’t force their employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine as a precondition for working in person.

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