January 12, 2022

Van Hollen, Gillibrand, Colleagues Call on Biden Administration to Continue and Make Permanent Osha’s Emergency Covid-19 Protections for Health Care Workers; Protections have Been Allowed to Lapse

As of this Week, the CDC Reported that 848,028 Health Care Workers Across the Nation Have Contracted COVID-19

As the rise of the Omicron variant continues to threaten the safety of our nation’s health care workforce, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sent a letter calling on the Biden administration to continue and make permanent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) emergency COVID-19 protections for health care workers. The letter addresses OSHA’s announcement at the end of 2021 that it would allow the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to lapse, despite the fact that health care workers still face serious safety challenges and workplace risks. Today, more than 120,000 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 nationwide, further straining overworked health care workers and hospitals facing severe staffing shortages. Recent reporting shows that overworked doctors, nurses, and staff have been forced to continue working in unsafe conditions and are concerned for their health and safety.

In June of 2021, OSHA issued an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to protect the workers who have shouldered the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and to provide clear standards detailing health care employers’ responsibilities to the safety of their workers. The standard requires employers to identify and control COVID-19 hazards in the workplace, provide access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and adequate ventilation systems, and ensure workers are notified of workplace exposures to COVID-19. This standard also gave health care workers a tool against which to measure their workplace practices, and recourse to OSHA if they felt their workplace was out of compliance.

On December 27, 2021, six months after promulgation of the ETS, OSHA announced it was not ready to issue a permanent rule and would let the non-recordkeeping portions of the temporary standard expire. When OSHA issued the ETS in June 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had reported that 491,816 health care workers had contracted COVID-19 and 1,611 had died. Today, those numbers have nearly doubled, with the CDC reporting that 848,028 health care workers across the nation have contracted COVID-19. Without a permanent rule, the health and well-being of our nation’s health care workers are at risk.

This letter is endorsed by the AFL-CIO, NYS AFL-CIO, SEIU, 1199SEIU, 32BJ SEIU, and National Nurses United.

This letter, led by Senator Gillibrand, is signed in addition to Senator Van Hollen by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) led a similar letter in the House of Representatives that has more than 100 co-signers.

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

Dear President Biden and Secretary Walsh,

Following the announcement in late December of the withdrawal of the non-recordkeeping portions of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) COVID-19 Health Care Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), we write to urge the Department of Labor to take all necessary steps to expeditiously issue a permanent standard to protect our nation’s health care workers in the workplace. Particularly in the context of rising COVID-19 caseloads stemming from the spread of the Omicron variant, our nation’s health care workers deserve a permanent, enforceable standard that will ensure their health and safety as they continue to work on the front lines of the pandemic response.

OSHA’s June 21 ETS protected health care workers, who have shouldered the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. The emergency temporary standard, which requires employers to implement plans to identify and control COVID-19 hazards in the workplace, helped to ensure that workers had access to effective personal protective equipment (PPE) and adequate ventilation systems, and ensured workers were notified of workplace exposures to COVID-19, providing critical protections against the risks frontline health care workers face every day in their workplaces. We were encouraged by the administration’s commitment to protecting health care workers through emergency protections by providing a clear standard detailing employers’ responsibilities to their workers.

Accordingly, we were deeply troubled by OSHA’s announcement on December 27 that the agency would remove these protections without a permanent standard in place, while at the same time the agency acknowledged health care workers remain in grave danger from exposure to COVID-19. Though the agency contends that the terms of the ETS remain “relevant in general duty cases in that they show that COVID-19 poses a hazard in the healthcare industry,”we are concerned that the lapse of the temporary standard signals that OSHA no longer retains the necessary robust enforcement authority to provide adequate protections for health care workers, nor will there be a standard to provide adequate transparency or predictability for employees and their employers in evaluating health care workplace practices.

We are writing to urge you to move forward with a permanent, enforceable standard that would require employers to protect workers in health care settings and to keep the emergency protections in place until a permanent standard is issued, which should be accomplished as expeditiously as possible. Given the emergence and rapid spread of the Omicron variant, health care workers need to retain strong, enforceable protections now; these protections cannot lapse. This is necessary to adequately address the emergency context of the present situation health care workers are facing.