OSHA issues long-delayed COVID-19 safety rules for healthcare workplaces

Hospital Administration

Dive Brief:

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued an emergency temporary standard Thursday that healthcare employers specifically must abide by to better protect workers from the spread of COVID-19.
  • The ETS requires hospitals, nursing homes and other sites of care to provide employees with paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover from any side effects, and those sick or potentially contagious with COVID-19 must be given accommodations to separate them from others at work or get paid time off of up to $1,400 per week.
  • Once published in the Federal Register, employers have 14 days to comply with most provisions and 30 days to comply with the remaining, though OSHA said it will use its discretion in citing those making good faith efforts to follow the new rules.

Dive Insight:

One of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders directed OSHA to consider an ETS mandating greater workplace safety protections related to the COVID-19 pandemic and, if necessary, issue one by March 15.

While long delayed, the rule announced Thursday is only mandatory for healthcare providers at facilities where suspected or confirmed coronavirus patients are treated, according to OSHA. The agency will issue updated guidance to protect workers in other industries like meat processing and manufacturing, it said.

Throughout the pandemic, employers in all industries have operated on rapidly shifting guidance from government agencies, not concrete standards they must adhere to.

“The agency has determined that existing standards and regulations, and the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause, are inadequate to address the COVID-19 hazard for these workers,” a fact sheet on the new requirements said. “Additionally, it has become clear that a Federal standard is needed to ensure sufficient protection for healthcare workers in all states,” it said.

Most of the ETS makes previous pandemic guidance mandatory, like masking and social distancing, though exempts fully vaccinated workers from those requirements, so long as they’re in a well-defined area with no reasonable expectation anyone present is suspected or confirmed to have the virus, according to OSHA.

If necessary the agency will update the standard to align with CDC guidelines.

National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurse’s union that’s been vocal about mandating such standards, applauded the move, though said it should also extend to workers in other industries.

The American Hospital Association, initially opposed to the ETS, said it does provide flexibility for hospitals to implement measures depending on the assessed level of risk.

AHA said hospitals have followed strict protocols to ensure staff and patient safety, pointing to a JAMA Network Open study that found most healthcare workers who tested positive got the virus from community spread.

Many employers are already in compliance with at least some of the standard’s provisions, like requirements around patient screening and management, personal protective equipment and cleaning and disinfection, a Department of Labor spokesperson said.

Despite some employers’ best efforts, they may be unable to comply with certain requirements by the specified dates, and the agency will use its discretion in issuing citations, the DOL spokesperson said.  A Department of Labor spokesperson did not directly answer whether there is a monetary fine for non-compliant facilities.