Although the OSHA ETS is Dead, OSHA Can Still Cite Employers for COVID Related Hazards
Today, the U.S. Department of Labor announced the final nail in the coffin of the OSHA COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). Specifically, the DOL announced that it will withdraw the COVID ETS, effective January 26, 2022. This comes after the U.S. Supreme Court stayed enforcement of the OSHA ETS on January 13, 2022, which guaranteed the ETS’ demise. Rest In Peace, ETS.
OSHA also wants us to know that although it is withdrawing the vaccination and testing ETS as an enforceable emergency temporary standard, OSHA is not withdrawing the ETS as a proposed rule. OSHA is prioritizing its resources to focus on finalizing a permanent COVID-19 Healthcare Standard. OSHA’s Healthcare ETS expired on December 21, 2021.
In the meantime, employers need to be aware that OSHA can–and will–still cite them for COVID-related hazards in the workplace. Rather than base citations on the ETS, OSHA will fall back on its favorite catch-all regulation: the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). Even before the ETS was enacted, OSHA relied upon the General Duty Clause as the basis of COVID-related citations. In addition to the General Duty Clause, OSHA may look for violations of any of the following standards:
- 29 CFR Part 1904, Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illness.
- 29 CFR § 1910.132, General Requirements-Personal Protective Equipment.
- 29 CFR § 1910.134, Respiratory Protection.
- 29 CFR § 1910.141, Sanitation.
- 29 CFR § 1910.145, Specification for Accident Prevention Signs and Tags.
- 29 CFR § 1910.1020, Access to Employee Exposure and Medical Records.
Therefore, employers need to be familiar with the OSHA Guidance, Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace and other industry-specific guidance. Have a written plan of action for COVID-19 as part of your safety program.
We can expect that OSHA Area Offices (AOs) will continue to prioritize inspections of COVID-19-related fatalities, multiple hospitalizations, and other unprogrammed activities alleging potential employee exposures to COVID-19-related hazards. Enforcement of protections for workers in non-healthcare industries will focus on unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated workers, including whether such employees are working indoors or outdoors. Additionally, OSHA will implement programmed inspections targeting those non-healthcare industries where OSHA has previously identified increased enforcement activity, and/or establishments with elevated rates of respiratory illnesses.
The Takeaway: Although OSHA cannot require employers to vaccinate or test their employees, OSHA can require employers to take steps to mitigate the hazards presented by COVID-19 in the workplace. Employers should continue to follow OSHA and CDC guidelines that describe how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Kathleen J. Jennings is a former principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. She defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters.