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This award-winning blog supplements the articles in Hospital Infection Control & Prevention.

OSHA COVID-19 Standard May Be Imminent

By Gary Evans, Medical Writer

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had submitted a proposed emergency temporary standard to protect healthcare workers and other employees from SARS-CoV-2 occupational infections. The standard is under further government review and the specific regulatory requirements have not been revealed in any detail as of May 10, 2021.

“In response to the [pandemic] devastation, President Biden issued an executive order that directed the Department of Labor to consider whether any emergency temporary standards were necessary to keep workers safe from the hazard created by COVID-19,” OSHA stated in announcing the action. “On Monday, April 26, OSHA sent draft standards to the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for review after working with its science-agency partners, economic agencies, and others in the U.S. government to get the proposed emergency standard right.”

OSHA further stated that $100 million in additional funding granted under the American Rescue Plan of 2021 will be used in part to hire more than 160 new critical personnel, including compliance safety and health inspectors.

“The health and safety movement has been fighting for mandatory COVID rules in the workplace since this pandemic started,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “There is no public agency that is tracking the number of workers who have died from workplace exposure to COVID.”

Martinez urged rapid implementation of the measure in a recent national commemoration for workers.

“We are hopeful that it is comprehensive and provides sufficient protections,” she said. “At the very minimum, we are aware that the standard mandates that employers must have a [COVID-19] prevention program in place that allows for workers to provide input.”

Broadly speaking, infection preventionists and other clinical groups traditionally have preferred Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) voluntary guidelines rather than rigid OSHA regulations. Hospital groups have also objected to regulations that may have little impact at considerable cost. An argument also could be made against mandates seen as Draconian, as more and more workers are vaccinated. Even if they are not vaccinated, some have argued they are at more risk in the community than the controlled healthcare environment.

However, OSHA has considerable political momentum right now, not the least of which is Biden’s working-class roots. OSHA could certainly argue that a standard now would protect workers in the next pandemic, as CDC guidelines were ignored and politicized when the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic started in the United States in 2020.

Then there are the powerful personal stories from those who lost coworkers. Pascaline Muhindura, RN, a critical care nurse at a hospital in Kansas City, MO, and a member of National Nurses United (NNU), spoke at the national commemoration for workers:

“I am here today to remember my colleagues and all the nurses and frontline workers who have lost their lives because our employers did not give us the protections we needed for the COVID pandemic,” she said. “In January 2020 nurses urged our employers to prepare for COVID. They didn’t.”

Muhindura blames the lack of readily available N95 respirators for a COVID-19 exposure from a patient, which led to the fatal infection of her coworker Celia Yap Banago in April 2020.

“Despite Celia’s death, the hospital continues to ration N95s,” she said. “Management is still forcing us to unsafely reuse the same N95 for our entire shift.”

Nurses need mandatory rules, not voluntary guidelines, she said.

For more on this story, see the next issue of Hospital Infection Control & Prevention.

Gary Evans, BA, MA, has written numerous articles on infectious disease threats to both patients and healthcare workers. These include stories on the original SARS, SARS-CoV-2, pandemic influenza, MERS, and Ebola. He has been honored for excellence in analytical reporting in newsletter journalism five times by the National Press Club in Washington, DC.