OSHA releases new standard to protect front-line health workers from COVID-19

The Biden administration issued a long-awaited new workplace standard aimed at protecting front-line healthcare workers from contracting COVID-19.

The emergency temporary standard, released Thursday by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), includes new requirements for hospitals, nursing homes and home health care providers including providing vital personal protective equipment like N95 masks. Nurse unions have been pressing the federal government for a standard for more than a year as front-line workers have faced issues getting adequate PPE.

“This tailored standard allows OSHA to help workers most in danger of contracting the virus, while the updated guidance will give businesses across the country the information they need to help protect unvaccinated workers and continue mitigating spread in the workplace,” said acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Jim Frederick in a statement.

The standard applies to any workers who are in healthcare settings that treat suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases. This includes employees in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, emergency responders, home health care workers and employees in ambulatory care facilities, a fact sheet on the standard said.

A major requirement is that employers provide a face mask to any employee when “indoors and when occupying a vehicle for work purposes,” the fact sheet said.

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Employers must also provide employees with respirators and other PPE when they will be exposed to people who have suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infection.

Hospitals were faced with massive demand and surging prices for PPE at the onset of the pandemic last year, especially for N95 respirator masks. Hospitals started to require front-line workers to reprocess single-use N95 masks to preserve supply.

Nurse unions such as National Nurses United slammed hospital systems that required reprocessing and other actions they said put front-line workers in harm's way.

Affected employers must create and implement a COVID-19 plan that includes a designed safety coordinator who can ensure compliance. It also calls for employers to give time off for workers to get the vaccination and experience side effects.

There is an exemption from the standard for fully vaccinated workers from the masking and several other requirements if they are not expected to be near any person with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infection.

Hospitals and other providers must comply with most of the provisions within 14 days of publication in the Federal Register and the remaining provisions within 30 days, OSHA said.

An employer that does not comply could face a citation from the agency. The employer also cannot discriminate against any worker who exercises their rights under the new standard.

“OSHA will use its enforcement discretion to avoid citing employers who miss a compliance deadline but are making a good faith effort to comply with the [emergency temporary standard],” the agency said in a release.