The labor protection agency announced on Thursday a rule setting out the steps employers must take to protect workers from the risk of Covid-19, but it will only apply to the healthcare industry and not to other high-risk jobs, such as the Biden Administration initially specified.
"Science tells us that health workers, especially those who come into regular contact with the virus, are most at risk at this point in the pandemic," Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh said on a call with reporters. "After an extensive review of the science and data, OSHA determined that a specific health care safety requirement will have the greatest impact."
The rule stipulates that health care employers provide protective equipment such as masks, examine and classify patients for the risk of Covid-19, and ensure adequate ventilation and distance, among other things. It will also require these employers to give workers adequate paid time off to receive vaccinations and manage their side effects.
Fully vaccinated workers do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing when in well-defined areas where people are unlikely to suffer from Covid-19.
Mr. Walsh, whose division includes OSHA, said the administration is issuing optional guidelines to non-healthcare employers that would focus on jobs in the manufacturing, meat processing, food and retail industries.
Groups focused on worker issues criticized the decision to restrict what is known as the emergency standard rule to healthcare employers, arguing that the virus continues to pose serious risks to other workers.
"We know that workers in many industries outside of healthcare have been at increased risk of Covid," wrote Debbie Berkowitz, a senior OSHA official during the Obama administration who is now on the National Employment Law Project, in an e- Mail. "Especially in low-wage industries such as meat processing, blacks and browns are worked disproportionately."
She added: "We need to ensure that these workers continue to be protected through mitigation measures."
Some union leaders expressed frustration that the Biden government had abandoned its earlier plans.
"Today's new OSHA Covid Occupational Safety Standard represents a broken promise to the millions of American grocery and meat packer workers who have fallen ill and died on the front lines of this pandemic," said Marc Perrone, President of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. it says in a statement.
Ms. Berkowitz and Mr. Perrone had expressed the hope that Mr. Biden would take a different course than his predecessor, after which OSHA refused to issue a standard on Covid-19.
During the Trump administration, OSHA passed a policy to largely limit Covid-related inspections to a small number of high-risk industries such as healthcare and emergency aid. In this high-risk group, meat packaging – which studies have shown was a major source of virus transmission – was not included.
Some labor groups praised OSHA under President Donald J. Trump for enforcing health care safety regulations, including proposed fines of over $ 1 million for violations in dozens of health facilities and nursing homes. However, critics accused the agency of largely failing to punish meat processors with fines for lax safety standards, such as insufficient distance from workers.
Mr Walsh said the risks for most non-healthcare workers had decreased as cases decreased and vaccination rates increased. He also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines last month, telling vaccinated individuals that they generally do not need to wear a mask indoors, played a role in OSHA's decision on one dispense with the broader Covid-19 standard.
"OSHA has adjusted the rule to reflect the reality of the field, the success of the vaccine effort, and the latest guidance from C.D.C. reflects. and the changing nature of the pandemic, ”said Mr Walsh on the call.
David Michaels, an OSHA director during the Obama administration, said the C.D.C. Guidelines had made it difficult to enforce a broader OSHA rule. "In order to justify an emergency standard, OSHA must demonstrate that there is great danger," said Dr. Michaels. "For this to happen, the C.D.C. should have clarified his recommendation and said that there is still a great danger for many workers. "
Without such clarification, said Dr. Michaels, now a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, employer groups would likely have challenged any new OSHA rule in court, arguing that the C.D.C. Guidelines showed that a rule was unnecessary.
Dr. Michaels said the new standard was an overdue move, but that it was disappointing that no Covid-specific standard had been issued for industries such as meat packaging, corrections and retail. "If exposure is not controlled in these workplaces, they will continue to be major drivers of infection," he said.
Jim Frederick, the acting head of OSHA, said in response to the call that even without the adoption of more comprehensive Covid rules through its so-called general mandatory clause, the agency had the authority to enforce protection for workers outside the health sector and that it would continue to do so You this.
He said many meat packers, along with other workplaces, had been inspected as part of an OSHA program that put high-risk industries under additional scrutiny.
OSHA submitted a draft emergency standard for review by a White House regulator in April, and the government has spent weeks meeting with workers and industry groups about the likely impact.
"As for the meetings that have taken place," said Mr Frederick, "we are participants in these meetings, we take these comments and take them into account in the overall work of the agency."
Employers have two weeks to comply with most of the rules.