In light of rising cases of COVID-19, the CDC has recently reversed its prior facemask guidance, and has now required that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks indoors in areas where there is significant transmission of COVID-19. Certain local jurisdictions have adopted similar rules that renew requirements for facemasks. In a significant move, OSHA has announced on its website that it has reviewed the latest guidance, science and data on COVID-19, and is not otherwise amending its COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard for Healthcare at this time.
OSHA’s June 2021 COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard for Healthcare employers provides a clear exception to general mask rules for (1) vaccinated employees (2) in well-defined areas, (3) where there is no reasonable expectation that any person with suspected or confirmed COVID–19 will be present. Accordingly, compliant with the ETS, health care employers are lawfully permitting employees to unmask in office settings where all employees are vaccinated and no COVID+ patients will be present. While the ETS was published at a time when COVID-19 seemed to be receding, data from recent weeks shows that cases are rising in certain parts of the country. The CDC has issued a new facemask recommendation, which advises that individuals wear masks whenever indoors if they are in a county with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission. Accordingly, a healthcare employer who complies with the ETS and allows vaccinated employee to unmask, in a county with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission, would run afoul of the CDC’s updated guidance.
Healthcare employers were unclear whether continued adherence to the ETS, and its facemask exceptions, would be permissible given the new CDC Guidance and OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which requires employers to keep a workplace free from any recognized hazard. In terms of the impact the new CDC guidance has on ETS compliance, OSHA has published the following disclaimer on its website:
OSHA has reviewed the latest guidance, science and data on COVID-19 and has consulted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). DOL has determined that neither CDC’s guidance on healthcare settings nor the underlying science and data on COVID-19 in healthcare settings has materially changed in a way to necessitate changes in the health and safety requirements contained in the ETS released on June 10, 2021. OSHA has determined that no changes to the ETS are necessary at this time, but the agency will continue to monitor and assess the need for changes each month.
Accordingly, OSHA has made it clear that permitting mask exceptions for vaccinated employees will still be permissible for employers, despite the new CDC guidance. It seems that OSHA understands that the data from the pandemic is constantly in flux and will take its time in revisiting the ETS or any requirements for employers, rather than react in a knee-jerk fashion. For employers this is an encouraging sign and indicates that OSHA’s enforcement priorities are not subject to sudden reversals as may have been the case with the CDC’s guidance.