Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Douglas Parker said the agency is still working to address COVID-19 in the healthcare industry while preparing rulemaking for a permanent infectious disease standard.
Parker, speaking at the American Society of Safety Professionals 2022 Conference and Expo, said OSHA is focusing its efforts on COVID-19’s impact on health care first, before addressing the need for a broad standard to cover infectious diseases in general.
COVID emphasis program will continue
Because of another increase in hospitalizations from COVID-19 across the U.S., OSHA isn’t letting up on COVID-related enforcement activities or work on a COVID-19 standard specifically for the healthcare industry.
The agency, according to Parker, is poised to announce an extension to its COVID-19 national emphasis program (NEP), which was set to expire at the end of July.
That NEP resulted in a push at the beginning of 2022 that saw OSHA conduct “inspections in the same number of healthcare facilities in the first six months of this year than we had done all of last year.”
Inspections have become more focused
Instead of doing what Parker called “our typical wall-to-wall inspection,” the agency conducted more focused inspections revolving around key areas of respiratory protection in healthcare settings.
“This was in response to our decision to suspend the Healthcare emergency temporary standard (ETS) while we work on a final rule,” Parker said. “It’s indicative of something people will see more of, which is more inventive strategies – working outside of our normal administrative processes and trying new things.”
Parker said he told OSHA’s regional administrators he wasn’t interested in what the in-compliance rate was when it came to COVID-19.
“We need to make our presence known in these facilities,” he said. “We need to be engaging with people. We need to be talking about the importance of maintaining the protections we had in our rule.”
Trying to do what takes 7 years in about 9 months
While the NEP continues into the fall, OSHA will be working on getting a COVID-19 healthcare standard in place before the end of 2022.
That is no easy task, however, as the agency doesn’t typically have the luxury of working quickly to establish a new rule.
“Our average health-related rule takes about seven years, historically,” Parker said. “We’re trying to finalize this rule in a nine-month period, so you can imagine the resources we’re bringing to bear to finalize our healthcare rule. We think it’s important to have fixed rules in place before the fall and the potential for increased cases in the winter.”
Abandoned COVID ETS now an ‘important blueprint’
A COVID-19 ETS that had been introduced in the midst of the pandemic was ultimately struck down the by the U.S. Supreme Court, but Parker said that ETS has been a helpful model for the healthcare industry.
“(The ETS) still remains an important blueprint for employers,” Parker said, as elements of it – including things like vaccination requirements, masking and the like – continue to be used by healthcare employers.
Parker mentioned that the original ETS was the result of OSHA’s “tremendous need to act” in the face of a global pandemic, resulting in the agency’s need “to go big, go bold and push the envelope.”
Infectious disease standard about more than pandemics
Once work is done on the permanent COVID-19 healthcare standard, the agency will be turning its attention toward creating a broader infectious disease standard. That standard will definitely apply to healthcare settings, but Parker said the full scope is still undetermined as it could potentially cover other industries that are deemed high-risk.
The reason health care will be the main focus of this standard is because workers in the industry are the core of the U.S. healthcare system, according to Parker.
“We think it’s critically important to have a general infectious disease standard that will protect these workers,” he said. “If that (system) collapses, then we are defenseless against (a pandemic).”
But he emphasized that an infectious disease standard wouldn’t only be about pandemics as it could also apply to more localized outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis and measles.
“If we learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the importance of being prepared,” Parker said. “And I think if we’d have had a rule in place we would have had better outcomes in health care than what we had.”