As Coronavirus Spreads, OSHA Must Establish Emergency Standard to Shield Workers From Infectious Diseases

Our Country Cannot Beat a Pandemic While Neglecting Employees, 29 Groups Say

WASHINGTON, D.C. – To address the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the federal government must immediately establish protections for American health care and other workers by immediately granting the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (AFL-CIO) March 6 petition for emergency infectious diseases, 29 advocacy, workers’ rights, public health and other groups said in a letter today.

Under certain conditions, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is authorized to set emergency temporary standards that take effect immediately to protect workers. These standards remain in effect for up to six months until replaced by a permanent standard.

“It is a no-brainer to use the best tools available to safeguard the workers at the forefront of exposure to the coronavirus, especially health care workers and first responders,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director or Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “The coronavirus pandemic could become a public health catastrophe unless we adequately protect such workers from this infection.”

An immediate mandatory federal standard to protect workers from infectious disease is critical to preventing the rapid spread of the coronavirus to health care workers and first responders, which would severely impede the fight against the epidemic, the groups wrote. The AFL-CIO’s petition gets to the heart of reducing the threat to the health and safety of those workers most at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. The AFL-CIO petition also appropriately seeks protections for airline and other transportation workers, social service workers and other public-facing staff.

Existing, largely voluntary guidance to protect workers from COVID-19 is insufficient, the groups said. At a minimum, the proposed emergency standard must include:

  • Steps for creating and implementing plans to protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus;
  • A plan for monitoring workers for exposure to the virus and vaccinating them when a vaccine is available;
  • Protections for workers against loss of employment, pay, benefits, seniority or other rights if they become infected with the coronavirus;
  • Housekeeping steps that employers must take to reduce worker exposure to the virus;
  • Communication of hazards and training for all workers with potential occupational exposure to the infection; and
  • Record keeping.

Read the letter.