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Unions Applaud Biden OSHA for Advancing Covid Safety Standard to Protect Workers

"Strong enforceable standards that require employers to develop workplace Covid-19 safety plans," said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, "are necessary for reducing infections and deaths, and beating this virus."

Healthcare workers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' New York Harbor Healthcare System listen to Marcus Ashby, an ICU nurse at a Manhattan hospital, speak as they participate in a national day of action on August 5, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images)

Healthcare workers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' New York Harbor Healthcare System listen to Marcus Ashby, an ICU nurse at a Manhattan hospital, speak as they participate in a national day of action on August 5, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images)

Organized labor applauded the Biden administration on Monday for advancing a set of emergency workplace safety rules to protect the health of workers amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and called for a quick finalization of the measure.

"From day one of this pandemic, we've seen far too many hospitals failing to take the necessary infection control measures to protect caregivers and patients, with the expectation that they would face no sanction by the federal government."
—Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, NNU

In a January 21 executive order, President Joe Biden gave the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) a March 15 deadline to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). After weeks of delay and growing pressure from unions and congressional Democrats, the Department of Labor sent OSHA's proposed ETS to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review Monday night, the first step before it is released and enacted.

"We are grateful to the Biden administration for taking this long-delayed step toward finally promulgating an emergency temporary OSHA standard, in the face of this deadly pandemic that has already killed nearly 600,000 people in America, the most in the world," National Nurses United (NNU) president Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, said in response to the move.

"From day one of this pandemic, we've seen far too many hospitals failing to take the necessary infection control measures to protect caregivers and patients, with the expectation that they would face no sanction by the federal government," Trifuno-Cortez added. "The new ETS is essential to hold them accountable, protect those who care for patients, and to help reduce the continuing spread of the virus."

NNU implored OSHA to enact an ETS as early as March 4, 2020, warning of the imminent spread of Covid-19 and drawing attention to the importance of imposing a nationwide safety standard to ensure that "healthcare employers provide the fullest protections for nurses and other healthcare workers, especially when the hazard is a novel infectious disease."

That request was ignored by former President Donald Trump's administration, which was subsequently denounced for its corporate-friendly approach of providing optional safety guidelines and refusing to rapidly use the full extent of OSHA's power to regulate employers.

Deborah Burger, RN, another NNU president, said Monday that "the shocking, and avoidable, number of infections and deaths—turning hospitals into super-spreader hot spots with little accountability for employers who maintained unsafe working conditions—is the terrible result of that abject failure."

"We strongly urge the Biden administration to ensure there are no further delays, and that the ETS gets formally promulgated before May 12, which marks International Nurses Day," Burger added. "That would be especially fitting given the horrific toll this pandemic has taken on nurses and all healthcare workers."

As of April 23, at least 3,758 healthcare workers in the U.S., including 387 RNs, had died of Covid-19, according to NNU. Due to a lack of nationwide data collection, a comprehensive count remains elusive.

In a statement, NNU said that it plans to formally request a meeting with the White House to "urge quick approval of the new standard and to reiterate its demand that the ETS be comprehensive in scope." The union added that the ETS "should be based on the precautionary principle and fully recognize the latest science on aerosol transmission of the virus to ensure that nurses and other healthcare workers will actually be protected once the standard is implemented."

In February, NNU and 44 allied unions and organizations—representing more than 13 million members and their communities—called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to update its Covid-19 guidance and submitted a petition with over 10,000 signatures, including scientific experts, urging the CDC to fully recognize Covid-19 aerosol transmission. In addition, more than a dozen medical experts signed a letter (CDC) to the White House in mid-February demanding immediate action to address inhalation exposure risks.

Defending the missed March 15 deadline, a Labor Department spokesperson said Monday that "OSHA has been working diligently on its proposal and has taken the appropriate time to work with its science-agency partners, economic agencies, and others in the U.S. government to get this proposed emergency standard right."

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The department spokesperson added that Labor Secretary Marty Walsh requested further review of the workplace safety rules "based on CDC analysis and the latest information regarding the state of vaccinations and the variants." NNU, for its part, emphasized that "while Covid-19 vaccines are an important public health tool to combat the pandemic, the reality is that workplace protections remain necessary, regardless of vaccination status."

Democratic Reps. Debbie Dingell, Rashida Tlaib, and Andy Levin—all from Michigan, which has been overwhelmed in recent weeks by surging Covid-19 infections and dwindling ICU capacity—sent a letter to Biden earlier on Monday urging swift implementation of the ETS to get the pandemic under control.

Politico reported Monday night that "House Democrats have also summoned DOL officials and occupational health experts to testify before Congress Friday on the status of coronavirus workplace safety rules promised by Biden."

"OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is expected to take roughly two weeks before it publishes the requirements, which are then likely to take effect immediately... [and] stay in effect for the next six months," Politico noted, adding that the OSHA rules will "land at the same time many states have started to roll back restrictions on businesses, including mask mandates."

While the ETS "will act as a floor for the 14 states that have instituted their own coronavirus-specific workplace protections... employers in states that have relaxed their own Covid-19 rules—like Texas and Mississippi—will now have to provide their workers with masks and other protective equipment under the federal OSHA rules, a requirement they did not face until now," the news outlet reported.

"As working people continue to keep our country afloat more than a year into this pandemic, the Biden administration must continue to prioritize our safety and ensure we are protected from this virus on the job."
—Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO

The submission of an ETS to the White House for review elicited praise from key leaders in the labor movement.

"Make no mistake, an emergency OSHA standard will save lives," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in response to the move. "We're grateful for the Department of Labor's work in getting the standard to this point, and we urge swift issuance of the rule."

"Strong enforceable standards that require employers to develop workplace Covid-19 safety plans, implement science-based protection measures, train workers, and report outbreaks are necessary for reducing infections and deaths, and beating this virus," Trumka continued.

"As working people continue to keep our country afloat more than a year into this pandemic," he added, "the Biden administration must continue to prioritize our safety and ensure we are protected from this virus on the job."

NNU's Burger echoed Trumka: "A strong ETS will save lives, both inside and outside our workplaces."

"It is urgent that the Biden administration complete its regulatory review with all deliberate speed," she said. "Lives hang in the balance."

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