The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for U.S. workers and employers to have a national respiratory protection framework to provide them with guidance and support in combating future respiratory hazards, according to a new report.
While this kind of framework has been needed for some time, the pandemic highlighted gaps in respiratory protection in workplaces with high airborne exposure risks, such as in the meat processing, retail and restaurant industries.
Throughout the pandemic, workers – and the public in general – have been required to wear some form of respiratory protection, but they’ve often had to overcome obstacles to do so in the form of availability and ever-changing guidance.
Workers need to be able to turn to a clear and authoritative source of information on respiratory hazards and how to protect themselves from such threats, according to Frameworks for Protecting Workers and the Public from Inhalation Hazards, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
More authority for OSHA
The report recommends the U.S. Department of Labor be designated the coordinating, responsible entity to oversee such a framework for the respiratory protection of workers, and that the Department of Health and Human Services oversee a similar framework for the general public.
Further, the report recommends that Congress revise the Occupational Safety and Health Act to give OSHA authority to ensure respiratory protection for workplaces currently outside its jurisdiction.
The agency should “adopt the broadest permissible interpretation of ’employee’ and ’employer’ to expand coverage of its respiratory protection requirements,” the report states.
Workers covered under the expanded definitions should include gig economy workers, unpaid volunteers, domestic workers in residential settings and certain independent contractors.
Supply chain, communication addressed
The report also details recommendations to ensure a more stable supply chain for respiratory protection devices, improve communication from public health officials and pursue research on the future respiratory protection needs of workers and the general public.
For example, the report states that:
- OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) should evaluate and predict the respiratory needs for workers so they can inform stockpiling and distribution guidelines, with OSHA recommending appropriate quantities and types of respirators to employers, and
- OSHA and NIOSH should develop tailored guidance and training for employers and workers who may be unfamiliar with respiratory protection programs while working with labor organizations to develop training materials to reach workers in different industries.