Court blocks bid to reinstate OSHA pandemic standard for health workers

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Labor unions hoping for permanent workplace safety standards to protect healthcare staff from COVID-19 infections in the workplace were dealt a blow Friday when an appeals court denied an emergency petition they filed.

Unions pushed heavily for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to implement a federal emergency temporary standard for medical facilities amid shifting guidance from national and local agencies through the first year of the pandemic.

OSHA did so in June 2021 with a rule mandating hospitals and other healthcare facilities follow requirements around ventilation, physical barriers and other protections intended to reduce virus transmission.

In December, the agency then announced it would withdraw the rule though it was working toward a permanent regulatory solution while considering broader infectious disease rulemaking.

In January, unions including National Nurses United, the New York State Nurses Association, and other major unions representing teachers and other workers, petitioned the court to compel OSHA to quickly codify a permanent standard on occupational exposure.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Friday ruled it lacked the authority to force the agency to make certain rules, leaving discretion up to OSHA, according to court documents.

“Since the start of the pandemic, America’s labor movement has fought to protect the lives and livelihoods of millions of health care workers who face serious risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job,” Liz Shuler, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations said in a statement.

The agency should work fast to complete and issue the permanent rule it announced in December and return to enforcing emergency protections until that happens, Shuler said. 

When the standard was initially implemented, healthcare employers pushed back, noting the rule was long and complex with a quick compliance date and short comment period.

“While we are disappointed in the court’s decision, we will not relent in our efforts to ensure that nurses and all other health care workers have the occupational health and safety protections they need to stay safe during the ongoing pandemic,” NNU President Jean Ross said in a statement.

“We urge OSHA to issue its promised permanent Covid standard for health care workers as soon as possible,” Ross said.