OSHA Issues New COVID-19 Safety Rule for Healthcare Workers

male healthcare worker wearing mask and face shield

Nenad Stojnev / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its first enforceable COVID-19 workplace safety guidelines.
  • The mandatory rule will only apply to people working in healthcare settings, requiring indoor masking and social distancing, among other measures.
  • Advocates for workers in other industries say they are disappointed by the guidelines, which fail to protect vulnerable frontline workers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently released mandatory guidelines for protecting healthcare workers against the risk of COVID-19.

“We got a lot of accolades during this pandemic, calling us heroes,” Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United, tells Verywell. “It is more than time to start protecting the people that are so vital in protecting the public.”

She adds that her organization is also seeking stronger provisions on preventing aerosolized transmission, like improving ventilation systems. “Vaccines are just one measure, but you have to continue the mask-wearing, the ventilation, the PPE, the distancing,” she says. “That's especially important now with states opening up, in our opinion, too early.”

But OSHA’s new mandatory guidance is limited to healthcare employers. Some union leaders criticized the new rule's exclusion of industries like meat processing and grocery, where employees are still getting sick at disproportionate rates.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the largest union representing grocery and meatpacking workers, says the existing voluntary guidelines fall short of what is needed to protect vulnerable workers.

“The current COVID safety guidelines in place are unenforceable and leave millions of essential grocery, retail, meatpacking, and food processing workers to fend for themselves as they face hundreds of potentially unvaccinated people every day,” UFCW president Marc Perrone said in a statement. “This is a slap in the face to the millions of American frontline workers and their families who have been infected and killed by this deadly virus.”

What This Means For You

The new OSHA guidelines apply only to healthcare settings. Healthcare employers will be required to provide personal protective equipment, ensure ventilation systems work well, offer paid time off for workers to get vaccinated and more. OSHA recommends that employers in retail and industry settings continue to encourage mask-wearing, social distancing, and other protective measures, though the administration won't enforce these rules.

The new rule requires healthcare employers to adhere to safety protocols like enforcing mask-wearing indoors, screening patients for COVID-19, and ensuring buildings are equipped with effective ventilation systems. 

OSHA says that employee exposure to COVID-19 presents a “grave danger to workers in healthcare settings” due to the relatively high chances of interaction with an infected patient.

“Science tells us that healthcare workers, particularly those who have come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for COVID-19 are most at risk,” Labor Secretary Marty J. Walsh said during a press call. “We also expect to release some updated guidance for the general industry which also reflects the CDC's latest guidance and tells employers how to protect workers who have not yet been vaccinated.”

Workplace Safety Debate in Non-Healthcare Settings

The new OSHA rule came after the CDC’s surprise changes to its mask guidelines in May, saying fully vaccinated people could forgo masks and social distancing indoors. 

Some business groups argue that strict workplace rules would create confusion, given that some institutions have stopped requiring people to wear masks. Meanwhile, unvaccinated workers in non-healthcare settings may remain vulnerable to infection.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) in a March statement expressed concern that a sweeping OSHA emergency regulation would place a burden on retail businesses that are still struggling to get back on their feet.

“NRF is concerned about the [possibility] of OSHA issuing a rigid, one-size-fits-all emergency regulation, particularly during a global pandemic that has already imposed substantial economic hardship on businesses,” the statement says.

Richard Trumka, the president of AFL-CIO, says he applauds OSHA’s move to protect healthcare workers, but calls for mandatory regulations to protect those working in high-risk industries like meatpacking, grocery, transportation, and corrections. Minority and immigrant workers tend to make up the bulk of the workforce in these industries, and the Kaiser Family Foundation notes that vaccination rates among this group are lagging behind because of “access and logistical barriers.”

“Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 exposures and infections,” Trumka said in a statement. “Throughout the pandemic, they have had to go to work in crowded, indoor settings with poor ventilation. Many of these workers still face barriers to vaccination and remain at serious risk of exposure and infection.” 

Certain measures, like requiring employers to offer paid time off for workers to get vaccinated or quarantine if they are sick with COVID-19, are important and necessary steps, Ross suggests. 

“We had to fight like hell to get [the mandatory guidance],” Ross says. “Our allies in other areas of industry did the same, they helped us, and we will continue to fight with them until all workers who are on the frontlines get the same OSHA protections.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.