On his first full day in office, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, which required OSHA to “consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID‑19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary,” and if so, to issue such emergency temporary standards (ETS) by March 15, 2021. Executive Order 13999, § 2(b) (Jan. 21, 2021), 86 FR 7211 (Jan. 26, 2021). An ETS, which skips the initial notice and comment process before it is in effect, can be issued pursuant to Section 6(c) of the OSH Act if OSHA determines that employees are exposed to “grave danger” and that an emergency standard is necessary to protect them from the grave danger. 29 U.S.C. § 655(c).

Putting aside that OSHA has not successfully issued an ETS since 1978, including that the last attempt to issue an ETS, regulating asbestos exposure, was invalidated by the US Court of Appeals in 1984,[1] OSHA now has several models for a COVID‑19 ETS from which it may draw. Specifically, California, Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia are among the 22 states and territories that administer and enforce their own state-plan OSHA, rather than rely solely on federal standards and enforcement.[2] These four states have developed their own COVID‑19 safety regulations that apply to most, if not all, workplaces in their respective states, and have both distinctive features and commonalities. Employers would be well-advised to be aware of each of the states’ specific standards, not only to comply with regulatory requirements in that state, but to consider whether their workplace is ready for potential, nationwide regulations which may incorporate elements of these states’ approaches.

With OSHA under a Presidential deadline to issue a nationwide COVID-19 safety regulation, we review the current status of OSHA guidance; describe the basic elements of the four states’ regulations; and look at recent federal orders by other agencies to anticipate what employers nationwide may soon be facing.

US OSHA: COVID‑19 Regulation and Guidance in the Prior Administration

US OSHA currently has several well-established regulations that apply to aspects of workplace protection that also apply to certain workplaces operating during the pandemic. For example, OSHA’s PPE and respiratory standards would apply particularly to work in hospitals and those in direct contact with people or bodies known to be infected by COVID-19. See, e.g., 29 CFR 1910.132, 1910.133, 1910.134. OSHA’s illness recordkeeping standard applies to workplaces otherwise required to do that recordkeeping (29 CFR 1904.2(a)), and all workplaces are required to report to OSHA work-related cases that result in hospitalization or death within 24 hours of a workplace exposure (see fn 9). The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, 29 USC 654(a)(1), requires each employer to furnish to each worker "employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm." 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1). Yet, the General Duty Clause does not provide clear direction on what an employer must do at the workplace, and enforcement by OSHA during the pandemic under the General Duty Clause can be difficult in all but the most egregious cases.

On its COVID-19 resource webpage, OSHA essentially recognizes that it does not have a comprehensive standard for working during the pandemic, as the state-plan states’ COVID-19 regulations do. OSHA points to its own bloodborne pathogen standard and California’s ATD standard as either provisions that “offer a framework that may help control some sources of the virus,” or “provid[ing] useful guidance for protecting [non-healthcare] workers exposed to SARS-CoV-2.”[3] OSHA has responded to previous threats of airborne disease and viral transmission by issuing specific guidance, as in the case of the Zika virus, avian flu, and the H1N1 virus. To state the obvious, SARS-CoV-2 is unique in US workplaces for many reasons, including the length of time it has been a threat, its asymptomatic transmission, and the sheer number of cases of sickness and death.

On March 9, 2020, OSHA issued its “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID‑19,” (Preparing Guidance) and on June 17, 2020, OSHA issued its “Guidance on Returning to Work,” (Reopening Guidance) (both currently under review by OSHA under the Biden Administration).[4] In its Preparing Guidance, OSHA recommended that employers divide job tasks into exposure levels of “very high, high, medium, and lower risk” and then recommends steps employers should consider taking to protect workers in each risk category, using its “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks, i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE. Specific controls generally were not offered and OSHA repeatedly described controls as “to be considered,” including physical barriers.

In its Reopening Guidance issued three months later as a supplement to the Preparing Guidance, OSHA’s “guiding principles” were that employers’ reopening plans “should address”:

  • Hazard Assessment
  • Hygiene
  • Social Distancing
  • Identification and Isolation of Sick Employees
  • Return to Work After Illness or Exposure
  • Controls
  • Workplace Flexibilities
  • Training
  • Anti-retaliation

In addition to the two basic guidance documents, through 2020, OSHA issued industry-specific COVID-19 Alerts for specific industries or types of jobs. For example, it issued, COVID-19 Guidance for the Package Delivery Workforce, which contained “tips [to] help reduce the risk of exposure.” Those tips included suggestions such as, “Allow workers to wear masks over their nose and mouth to prevent them from spreading the virus” and “Discourage workers from using other workers’ tools and equipment.” These guidance documents were not clear mandates for any specific type of hazard control.

The previous administration successfully resisted attempts to force it to adopt an ETS, instead insisting that it would rely on existing regulations and guidance, the General Duty Clause, and its enforcement priorities.

Four State-Plan States’ Approach

Four state-plan states determined that the business in their state should be regulated more prescriptively and with compliance mandates. An evaluation of each of these states’ regulations can be found in our Guide to COVID-19 Workplace Safety Regulation in Four State-Plan States.

In summary, these states took each of the elements in the Reopening Guidance and added specific, mandatory requirements, particularly with respect to hazard controls, return-to-work policies, and training. The principal differences are whether the state’s regulations expressly accommodate different levels of exposure risk (as described in the Preparing Guidance) and/or whether the state provides specific requirements for specific industries. The structure of Virginia’s permanent COVID-19 workplace safety regulation is built on the exposure risk approach described in the Preparing Guidance, and then adds specific controls and requirements for each exposure risk level. Michigan Emergency Rules require employers to categorize risk, but also includes hazard controls by industry. Oregon Emergency Rules have more industry-specific, fewer industry-wide prescriptive controls. Only California’s ETS does not rely on either an industry-specific or exposure risk regulatory approach, imposing requirements through its Injury and Illness Prevention Plan model for all employers except those healthcare employers already covered by its 2009 Aerosol-Transmitted Disease regulation. California’s ETS also requires more action, compared to all other States, in response to COVID-19 cases in the workplace, such as testing of exposed and potentially exposed employees and wage and benefit protections for employees who are required to be excluded from the workplace for quarantine or isolation.

By the end of the prior administration, these four states were the only states with workplaces operating under a comprehensive COVID-19 workplace safety regulation, enforced by the state’s occupational safety and health agency, not federal OSHA. The other states’ employers were operating under US OSHA guidance and existing regulations, as described above, and their Governors’ COVID-19 public health directives and orders.

The Biden Administration’s OSHA Guidance to Date

President Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety instructed OSHA to take several COVID-19 workplace safety actions: issue “revised guidance” within two weeks; consider and, if necessary, issue a COVID-19 ETS by March 15; enhance enforcement; and initiate a multilingual workers’ rights outreach program. Executive Order 13999, § 2.

OSHA issued its revised guidance eight days later on January 29, 2021. The new “stronger” guidance document, entitled Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace (Protecting Guidance), used more resolute language, such as directives that employers “should” implement certain programs, provided more details on a range of elements, including emphasizing communication to workers in native languages and non-retaliation, and incorporated recent CDC guidance.

Introducing the principal elements of its Protecting Guidance, OSHA reiterated employers’ obligation under the General Duty Clause, and stated that, “[i]mplementing a workplace COVID-19 prevention program is the most effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at work.” According to the Protecting Guidance, that program includes:

  • Assigning a COVID-19 coordinator responsible for COVID-19 issues on behalf of the employer
  • Conducting a hazard assessment
  • Implementing controls, following the hierarchy of controls starting with engineering controls, administrative controls, PPE, and suppressing spread through hand washing, sanitation, and face coverings
  • Considering protections for workers at higher risk for severe illness, including age, through supportive policies and practices
  • Communicating and training in appropriate languages and in an understandable fashion
  • As a “best practice,” instituting a “two-way” communication system for workers to report their symptoms and medical status and for employers to report illness cases in the workplace
  • Instructing sick and exposed workers to stay home and having non-punitive absence policies
  • Performing cleaning and disinfection, particularly after ill people have been at work
  • Following state and local guidance regarding pre-entry health screening and testing
  • Recording and reporting cases per existing regulation and reporting to health departments as locally required
  • Protecting workers from retaliation for raising concerns about COVID-19 hazards

OSHA’s revised guidance also repeats, in detail, CDC guidelines regarding face coverings and periods of time for isolation and quarantine. However, what perhaps is most distinctive about the revised OSHA guidance is its reference to COVID-19 vaccination. OSHA’s Protecting Guidance states that an effective COVID-19 Prevention Plan should: “Mak[e] a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available at no cost to all eligible employees,” and employers should provide information about “the benefits and safety of vaccinations.” However, because the science on whether the vaccine prevents transmission is not settled, employers should be sure to not “distinguish[] between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not,” with regard to protective measures, such as face coverings.

OSHA’s Protecting Guidance lays out in more detail the elements of a COVID-19 Prevention Plan, and indicates new concerns for enforcement, including with respect to language usage and vaccination efforts. However, OSHA’s enforcement powers continue to be limited primarily to General Duty Clause and PPE violations, as occurred in the prior administration. Like its predecessor guidance, OSHA states that the document “is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations. It contains recommendations as well as descriptions of existing mandatory safety and health standards. The recommendations are advisory in nature, informational in content, and are intended to assist employers in recognizing and abating hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm as part of their obligation to provide a safe and healthful workplace.”

What OSHA’s Soon to Drop “Shoe” May Look Like

In considering issuing a COVID-19 ETS, OSHA faces political and legal risks that the state-plan states do not face. As noted above, OSHA has not even attempted to issue an ETS in close to 40 years. The facts that work through the pandemic has been occurring for a year and vaccines are becoming increasingly available will likely hurt OSHA’s ability to prove grave danger and necessity across all workplaces and in all industries. The fact that OSHA has issued COVID-19-related citations, with proposed penalties exceeding $4 million, under the General Duty Clause and existing regulatory standards, will also make it difficult for OSHA to prove the need for a broad ETS. Even though the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General’s February 25, 2021 report (the OIG Report) criticizes OSHA’s pandemic performance as deficient, it largely blames “increased complaints, reduced inspections, and most inspections not being conducted onsite subject employees to greater safety risk.” OIG Report at p. i. The OIG Report also stresses that OSHA’s guidance on COVID-19 safety is not enforceable, and urges OSHA to consider an ETS; however, it notes that OSHA can rely on its guidance as evidence to support a General Duty Clause claim. OIG Report, pp. 10-14. Indeed, as recently as February 23, 2021, OSHA announced that it had issued a citation under the General Duty Clause against a manufacturer, after an employee died, allegedly after workplace exposure to SARS-CoV-2. Although the OIG Report supports a COVID-19 ETS, perhaps inadvertently, the report more strongly demonstrates that deficiencies in OSHA’s workplace safety protection was due to lack of enforcement, not necessarily due to the lack of tools to do so.

Although OSHA has received demands from labor and other advocates to enact a nationwide ETS, resembling the Virginia model, the California model, or its own guidance, OSHA may well decide that a more politically and legally feasible approach is a more targeted one. For example, under the Biden Administration, federal orders requiring face coverings in workplaces have already begun. On January 21, 2021, the President’s Executive Order 13998, Promoting COVID‑19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel, 86 FR 7205 (Jan. 26, 2021), has resulted in the CDC issuing a nationwide order requiring masks of a certain type to be worn, by the public and workers, in and on airplanes, trains, buses, and various modes of surface transportation, including in stations and terminals. Requirement for Persons to Wear Masks While on Conveyances and at Transportation Hubs. CDC Agency Order, 86 FR 8025 (Feb. 3, 2021). On January 31, 2021, the TSA issued a Security Directive for enforcing the CDC Order. Security Directive 1582/84-21-01.

Most recently, on March 1, 2021, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued the Emergency Order Requiring Face Mask Use in Railroad Operations, stating that it was “exercising its emergency railroad safety authority” to require rail carriers to require mask wearing by railway workers “while engaged in railroad operations.” 86 FR 11888, 11890 (Mar. 1, 2021). To support this Emergency Order, the FRA noted that it has authority to issue emergency orders to address an unsafe practice that “causes an emergency situation involving a hazard of death, personal injury, or significant harm to the environment,” including “restrictions and prohibitions… that may be necessary to abate the situation.” 86 FR at 11888, citing 49 U.S.C. § 20104. The FRA justified its emergency order by describing the impact of the pandemic generally; concerns about virus variants that spread more easily and quickly; and field observations of personnel not wearing masks. The FRA stated that its emergency order was “necessary…to ensure a minimum level of nationwide compliance, together with the [TSA’s Security Directive].” 86 FR at 11890. The FRA also referred to the railroad transportation system being essential for public health, the economy, and “other bedrocks of American life.” Id. While clearly applicable only to a specific industry, the FRA emergency order may indicate a targeted approach that OSHA may take at all workplaces, i.e., requiring the wearing of face masks at workplaces and in the work environment, except for narrow exceptions.

OSHA also may decide to issue a regulation targeting a particular industry or hazards, such as adopting California’s ATD Standard as a federal ETS for the healthcare industry. Or OSHA may convert its most recent Protecting Workers guidance into an ETS targeted to specific high hazard industries, such as healthcare, congregate living facilities, meat processing plants, or manufacturing facilities. OSHA also may use its ETS powers to obtain information regarding the immediate reporting of COVID-19 cases in the workplace, in order to gather the data necessary to support both enhanced enforcement efforts or a future ETS.

Notably, on February 15, 2021, former HHS and OSHA officials, joined by other public health luminaries, called on COVID-19 Pandemic Response members, Jeffrey Zients, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, as well as other top federal officials, including at OSHA, to have the CDC and OSHA revise their guidance and regulations, including by requiring healthcare workers and workers “at very high risk of exposure and infection such as in food processing, prisons, and security” to be provided N95 respirators, so that they need not rely solely on face coverings. Letter from R. Bright, et al., “Immediate Action is Needed to Address SARS-CoV-2 Inhalation Exposure” (Feb. 15, 2021). The letter’s signatories also called on OSHA to issue an ETS “that recognizes the importance of aerosol inhalation, includes requirements to assess risks of exposure, and requires implementation of control measures following a hierarchy of controls,” essentially the basic elements in OSHA’s Protecting Workers guidance. They also called on OSHA to require that workers at lower exposure risks be “offered high-performing barrier face coverings tested to the STM F3502-21 Standard Specification for Barrier Face Coverings with at least 80% filter efficiency, no more than 15mm H2O air flow resistance and total inward leakage of no more than 5% on a panel of at least 10 subjects.” Id. They further recommended that this OSHA broad masking requirement be supported by a “national effort,” including under the Defense Production Act, to have N95 respirators and the ASTM 80% face coverings available for nationwide worker protection. Id.

Whichever approach OSHA takes by March 15, 2021, it will face political opposition, and the legal opposition to any ETS likely will be fierce. In the meantime, employers should consider that President Biden’s Protecting Worker Health and Safety Executive Order also called for OSHA to ramp up its enforcement activities, including to protect workplaces with a large number of people at risk. 86 FR at 7211, §§ 2(c), (d). Thus, regardless of whether OSHA issues a nationwide ETS, employers who have experienced multiple cases of COVID-19 or are in industries with higher numbers of cases would be well-advised to have in place a COVID-19 prevention plan, with well-recognized physical distancing, sanitation, mask-wearing, and other now-standard COVID-19 prevention controls.