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The most urgent rulemaking for the federal government’s worker safety agency is enacting a permanent Covid-19 standard for the health-care industry, OSHA chief Doug Parker. “It’s the occupational hazard of our time and we’ll continue to treat it like that as long as necessary,” Parker said of Covid-19. Parker, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health sworn in on Nov. 3, discussed the rulemaking during a wide-ranging discussion that included questions about the need to increase the number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors and the agency’s enforcement priorities. OSHA also continues to work on a more encompassing infectious disease standard for health care that would be completed after the Covid-19 measure is enacted. His comments about the two health-care rule proposals clarify the agency’s path forward from a tumultuous winter of setbacks. The Supreme Court on Jan. 13 blocked OSHA’s shot-or-test mandate for workers at the biggest U.S. employers. Two weeks earlier, the agency had announced it was halting enforcement of a Covid-19 emergency temporary standard specifically for health-care providers, unveiled in June, that required infection control programs and other measures because it hadn’t met a Dec. 21 deadline to enact a permanent rule. Several unions are asking a federal appeals court to require OSHA to complete that health-care workers regulation within 30 days of a court order. Oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit are set for April 4. The permanent Covid-19 health-care standard will use the now-lapsed emergency standard as its basis, Parker said, adding the agency hasn’t determined if there will be a hearing and/or another round of public comments before the final version of the standard is enacted. Parker said OSHA believes the Supreme Court ruling that forecast its rejection of the vaccine mandate later withdrawn by the agency still allows it to continue protecting workers from on-the-job hazards, even when there are similar exposure risks outside of work. The emergency health-care Covid-19 standard didn’t require vaccinations or testing, but it did allow exceptions to some portions of the rule, such as social distancing indoors, if all the workers “in a well-defined area” were fully vaccinated. Many health-care employers that would be covered by the standard are already having to comply with the vaccination mandate from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that is being enforced while under court challenges by some states and employees. Even without Covid-19 specific rules to enforce, virus-related inspections account for about 8 percent of OSHA inspections, Parker said. The agency’s goal was 5%. Since April 2020, OSHA has conducted 3,587 Covid-19 related inspections and issued citations in about 765 cases, agency enforcement data shows.
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