Unions go to court to get OSHA to release permanent COVID-19 protection standard

A collection of nursing and labor unions wants a federal court to step in and force the Biden administration to issue a permanent standard to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19.

The AFL- CIO, National Nurses United and other major unions filed a petition Wednesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals to force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to make a permanent COVID-19 protection standard in place of the temporary measure installed last June.

Unions say a permanent standard that details minimum standards for equipment and staffing numbers is vital as the omicron variant has helped fuel surges of COVID-19 across the country.

“Going to work should not mean putting your life and the lives of your loved ones in danger,” said Bonnie Castillo, National Nurses United executive director, in a statement. “It is time for OSHA to issue a permanent standard and protect nurses and healthcare workers who are on the front lines working to save the lives of others.”

Under federal law, OSHA has six months after a temporary standard is released to make it permanent, but the agency decided against doing that Dec. 27.

OSHA said in a statement that the permanent measure won’t be done before the six-month window expired. It also withdrew the non-recordkeeping portions of the temporary standard.

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A COVID-19 log and reporting provisions are still in effect as they are adopted under a separate part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

But OSHA said that given the continued spread of the virus, it is still encouraging “all healthcare employers to continue to implement the [emergency standard’s] requirements.”

The agency added that employers should follow other provisions of the standard such as standards for personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protection.

“OSHA will accept compliance with the terms of the healthcare [emergency temporary standard] as satisfying employers’ related obligations under the general duty clause, respiratory protection and PPE standards,” the agency said. “Continued adherence to the terms of the healthcare [standard] is the simplest way for employers in healthcare settings to protect their employees’ health and ensure compliance with their Occupational Safety and Health Act obligations.”

But the unions charge in the petition that the existing standards and general duty clause “were insufficient to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19.”

The petition also said OSHA already found in June that the standard was necessary to protect workers, and the agency “has not in any way withdrawn those findings.”

In addition, OSHA hasn’t adopted a timetable for releasing a permanent standard, the petition added.

The unions are asking the court to halt OSHA from withdrawing the temporary standard and asking the agency to put out a permanent one within 30 days.

OSHA did not return a request for comment as of press time on the petition.

Nurses unions have clamored since the start of the pandemic for OSHA to issue an order, especially as they have objected to reprocessing of single-use PPE employed by most hospital systems.

“As of today, we have recorded the deaths of 476 nurse deaths from COVID,” Castillo said.