On April 4, 2022, a merits panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on a petition seeking to force OSHA to issue a permanent standard for healthcare occupational exposure to COVID-19 and to reinstate the Healthcare Emergency Temporary Standard on Occupational Exposure (Healthcare ETS) to COVID-19 pending the permanent standard. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ referral of this matter to a merits panel was initiated by the Court’s own motion.
On December 27, 2021, OSHA announced the withdrawal of the Healthcare ETS and confirmed its intent to issue a permanent infectious disease standard. Less than two weeks later, on January 5, 2022, National Nurses United and several other labor unions filed an Emergency Petition for a Writ of Mandamus and Request for Expedited Briefing and Disposition with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. In re: National Nurses United, et al., No. 22-1002 (D.C. Cir. Jan. 5, 2022).
The unions argue that OSHA has failed to adequately protect nurses and other healthcare workers from COVID-19. OSHA filed its opposition to the petition on January 21, 2022, arguing, among other things, that OSHA was unable to finalize a permanent healthcare standard because it focused the agency’s resources on its COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (which was also withdrawn). OSHA indicated it expects to complete rulemaking for a permanent healthcare standard within six-to-nine months.
The Healthcare ETS applied in settings where COVID-19 patients are treated, and it required healthcare employers with more than 10 employees to develop and implement written COVID-19 plans that included the following elements:
- Assigning a designated safety coordinator;
- Patient screening and management;
- Policies and procedures to comply with CDC guidelines;
- Facemask and PPE requirements;
- Protections while using aerosol-generating procedures on persons with suspected or confirmed COVID-19;
- Physical distancing;
- Solid barriers at employee work stations;
- Cleaning and disinfection protocols;
- HVAC system requirements;
- Health screening and medical management requirements;
- Paid leave for vaccinations, vaccination recovery, and medical removal from work due to COVID-19 infection or certain COVID-19 exposures;
- Employee training;
- Anti-retaliation protections;
- Employee COVID-19 logs; and
- Reporting work-related COVID-19 fatalities and in-patient hospitalizations.
OSHA has indicated its forthcoming permanent infectious disease standard will cover all industries and address airborne, droplet, and non-bloodborne contact diseases.
While OSHA has indicated it may use the now-withdrawn Healthcare ETS to support citations against healthcare employers under the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, only the COVID-19 log and reporting provisions formally remain in effect.
Reinstatement of the Healthcare ETS would have a significant impact on covered employers, particularly as COVID-19 cases appear to be dropping throughout the country and more jurisdictions are loosening restrictions.