Mr. Walsh indicated that the risks to most workers outside health care had eased as cases had fallen and vaccination rates had risen. He also indicated that guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month advising those who have been vaccinated that they generally need not wear a mask indoors played a role in OSHA’s decision to forgo a broader Covid-19 standard.
“OSHA has tailored the rule that reflects the reality on the ground, the success of the vaccine efforts, plus the latest guidance from C.D.C. and the changing nature of pandemic,” Mr. Walsh said on the call.
David Michaels, a head of OSHA during the Obama administration, said the C.D.C. guidance had made a broader OSHA rule more difficult to enact. “To justify an emergency standard, OSHA has to show there’s a grave danger,” Dr. Michaels said. “For that to happen, the C.D.C. would have needed to clarify its recommendation and say that for many workers, there remains a grave danger.”
Without such clarification, said Dr. Michaels, now a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, employer groups would probably have challenged any new OSHA rule in court, arguing that the C.D.C. guidance indicated that a rule was unnecessary.
Dr. Michaels said that the new standard was an overdue step but that it was disappointing that no Covid-specific standard was issued for industries like meatpacking, corrections and retail. “If exposure is not controlled in these workplaces, they will continue to be important drivers of infections,” he said.
Jim Frederick, the acting head of OSHA, said on the call that the agency had power even without issuing broader Covid rules, through its so-called general duty clause, to enforce protections for workers outside the health care industry and that it would continue to do so.
He said many meatpacking facilities, along with other workplaces, had been inspected under an OSHA program applying added scrutiny to high-risk industries.