With all the recent discussion over the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration planning to issue a temporary COVID-19 safety standard, employers may not recall that the agency has had a more general infectious disease rulemaking in the works for years. Last week in response to a lawsuit filed against the agency, OSHA indicated that it intends to make issuance of this broad standard a regulatory priority.
In response to a petition filed by several unions before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, OSHA replied that it was ready to issue a proposed infectious disease rule in late 2016. When administrations changed early in 2017, this rulemaking was halted. The unions claim that failure to continue this regulatory process places workers at risk of unreasonable harm based on exposure to a variety of diseases, including COVID-19, Ebola, tuberculosis, and meningitis. The regulations would apply to health care workers in a variety of settings where they could be exposed to such diseases through direct contact or airborne spread.
It will be interesting to learn how OSHA meshes a broader infectious disease safety standard with measures aimed specifically at limiting COVID-19. Even after the end of the current pandemic, health care employers may be dealing with increased regulatory requirements not related to any specific public health event. A permanent standard will likely take months to go through the notice and comment period, and it may face legal challenges as well.