Cal/OSHA approved temporary new standards Thursday, Nov. 19, that will require employers to establish stronger workplace protections against COVID-19 and make it easier for the state to pursue those who do not comply.

Though several guidelines have been released in the past, including from Cal/OSHA, the new standards streamline and strengthen the agency’s enforcement efforts by establishing more specific mandates, according to an analysis by Cal/OSHA.

Many of the existing regulations for protecting workers from infectious disease did not cover certain industries affected by major outbreaks, officials said.

“COVID-19 is an occupational health emergency causing more deaths in less time than any other workplace crisis in the nearly fifty-year existence of Cal/OSHA,” wrote Douglas L. Parker, chief of the division of Occupational Safety and Health, in the analysis of the proposed changes. “The COVID-19 public health crisis is exactly the type of catastrophe that the legislature intended an emergency regulation to address.”

The emergency standards, however, are only temporary at this point, and will run for 180 days while an advisory committee determines permanent rules. Cal/OSHA’s standards board approved the matter unanimously.

“Just sitting on this and waiting will not help, 750 people are dying a day,” said David Thomas, chair of the standards board. “It’s time, somebody has to lead.”

New stay-at-home orders

The United States surpassed 250,000 deaths from COVID-19 this week, with more than 18,400 from California. Gov. Gavin Newsom reintroduced stay-at-home curfews Thursday that prohibit nonessential work and travel from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in counties ranked in the “purple tier.” The order goes into effect Saturday, Nov. 21, and remains in effect until Dec. 21.

The National Lawyers Guild and the advocacy group WorkSafe filed the original petition requesting Cal/OSHA develop the emergency standards.

“A vaccine appears to be coming in the future, but until we have enough vaccine doses available to inoculate a vast proportion of the working population, we need to continue with nonpharmaceutical measures to prevent continued spread, illness, hospitalizations and deaths,” said Stephen Knight, executive director of Workspace, in a statement.

During a nearly eight-hour public comment period Thursday, proponents of the standards detailed instances in which workers have faced retaliation for raising concerns and pressure to continue working even when sick. At one warehouse in Brea, 8% of the employees tested positive for the virus, according to Matt Hart of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 324.

“To put it bluntly, in many cases, it seems employers are putting profits before people,” Hart said.

Under the standards, employers will have to maintain a 6-foot separation between employees and build cleanable, solid barriers in instances where social distancing is not feasible. Employees will need to wear masks, which the employer must provide, with limited exceptions. Personal protective equipment cannot be shared between employees, and other items, such as phones and keyboards, should not be shared, whenever feasible. Regular disinfection and cleaning of shared supplies and spaces are required.

If someone is infected with COVID-19, the standards outline steps workplaces must take to investigate, notify and test, for free, every impacted employee. Cal/OSHA will require a one-business-day turnaround for exposure notification.

Businesses will need to maintain an infected employee’s earnings, seniority and benefits during the 14-day quarantine.

Some industries complain

Some requirements drew criticism from industry associations. In particular, businesses employing migrant workers argued rules for social distancing on shared transportation and in employer-provided housing would create a financial burden. One of the criticized rules requires employers to space beds at least 6 feet apart in all directions.

Others feared a requirement to test all potentially impacted employees could cripple California’s supply chain if several distribution centers had to shut down for testing.

Before the vote, Parker said tests would be needed only for individuals who were in the same area as someone confirmed infected and only if those individuals were there during the specific times the infected person worked.

Parker said he is aware the implementation is not a small or simple task, but added that employers who have been following the guidelines previously issued by local, state and federal agencies will be in a good position to implement the new rules.

“It does have some complexity, but this is a standard that cover infectious diseases, so it should not be a surprise to anyone,” he said.

Source: The Press-Enterprise