February 16, 2021 / Mark Ames

Coming Soon: An Emergency Temporary Standard on COVID-19

In 2020, as part of his 4-Point Plan for Essential Workers, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden called for the immediate release and enforcement of “an Emergency Temporary Standard (‘ETS’) to give employers and frontline employees specific, enforceable guidance on what to do to reduce the spread of COVID.” Shortly after being sworn in, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, which requires the U.S. Secretary of Labor to issue updated guidance to employers on COVID-19; the guidance was recently published on the Department of Labor website. The Executive Order also required OSHA to determine whether an ETS on occupational exposure to COVID-19 is needed. If an ETS is deemed necessary, OSHA is required to issue it by March 15. By all accounts, OSHA is racing full steam ahead with an ETS.

Unlike a typical rulemaking, an ETS doesn’t give the public an opportunity to provide feedback on the government’s draft proposal. With this in mind and the knowledge that OSHA will likely issue an ETS in the near future, AIHA gathered together subject matter experts representing 12 volunteer groups and met with OSHA for an hour to provide the agency with advanced feedback on what should be addressed in an ETS. A week after our meeting, OSHA invited AIHA to an exclusive listening session, where we provided additional feedback. Below is a summary of that feedback:

  • The ETS should recognize and reflect the latest science, including that the virus is transmitted through the inhalation of small aerosol particles. For additional information on this subject, please see the "Joint Consensus Statement on Addressing the Aerosol Transmission of SARS CoV-2 and Recommendations for Preventing Occupational Exposures" (PDF) recently issued by AIHA and endorsed by the following scientific societies: American Association of Occupational Health Nurses, Association of Occupational Health Professionals in Healthcare, ACGIH, American Public Health Association-Occupational Health and Safety Section, International Safety Center, National Association of Occupational Health Professionals, Organization for Safety Asepsis and Prevention, and Workplace Health Without Borders.
  • The ETS should provide clear, tailored information to both smaller and larger employers and their workers. The information should be in multiple languages and use diagrams and graphics wherever possible.
  • The ETS or documents clearly associated with it should include tools and templates to make it easier for businesses of all sizes and industries to comply with new requirements.
  • The ETS should include controls that are feasible for employers to implement, including a control plan, respiratory protection, surveillance and testing, notification procedures, removal procedures, worker participation, and training.
  • The ETS should require some level of verification and validation that the controls put in place are effective and functioning. OSHA should encourage workers to speak out about unsafe working conditions and remind workers and employers that workers have legal protections.
  • The ETS should include requirements for employer reporting of COVID outbreaks.
  • The ETS and related communications should be clear that if a risk evaluation determines that a group of workers is at risk for exposure to COVID-19, and respiratory protection is implemented as part of the control strategy, then a respiratory protection program needs to be put in place.
  • Employees and employee representatives should be notified when there is a positive case of COVID-19 at work to which they may have been exposed so that they can take appropriate action. Employers should also report outbreaks of two or more cases to health departments and OSHA so that health departments can conduct contact tracing and OSHA can help the employer slow the spread of the virus when there is an outbreak.
  • Workers must be provided training about the virus, the risks in their workplace, the actions their employer is taking to protect them, and how to safely perform their job tasks. To ensure training is effective, employers should document who has received training and ensure that the training is performed by a knowledgeable person in a way that all workers can understand.
  • The ETS should emphasize air conditioning and heating air dilution with fresh, outdoor air, and should also include a ventilation space evaluation, as well as the identification of supply and exhaust.
  • The ETS should also address heating, ventilation, and air conditioning performance and maintenance by referencing standards and guidelines by ASHRAE, CDC, and others.

In addition to the feedback from AIHA volunteers, OSHA’s ETS is likely to pull heavily from existing CDC and OSHA guidance, and related standards and documents in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia, among others.

AIHA will look for other opportunities to provide feedback to OSHA and will share information with AIHA members as we receive it. In the meantime, please feel free to email me with questions, comments, and intel.

Mark Ames

Mark Ames is AIHA’s director of Government Relations.


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