Gay Sigel

Where is OSHA’s COVID-19 ETS? No Where the Ides of March.

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On his first full day in office, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, which required OSHA to “consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID‑19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary,” and if so, to issue such emergency temporary standards (ETS) by March 15, 2021. Executive Order 13999, § 2(b) (Jan. 21, 2021), 86 FR 7211 (Jan. 26, 2021). An ETS, which skips the initial notice and comment process before it is in effect, can be issued pursuant to Section 6(c) of the OSH Act if OSHA determines that employees are exposed to “grave danger” and that an emergency standard is “necessary” to protect them from the grave danger. 29 USC § 655(c).

March 15, 2021 came and went; no ETS was issued. As of this writing, OSHA has not made a public statement as to why it did not issue an ETS on March 15, or the agency’s considerations and future plans regarding an ETS. Why might OSHA have chosen not to act now? What has OSHA done instead? What ETS might be on the horizon?

Why Might OSHA Have Decided Not to Issue an ETS Now?

There is considerable legal risk that a COVID-19 ETS will not hold up in court. OSHA has not successfully issued an ETS since 1978. Its last attempt to issue an ETS would have regulated asbestos exposure and was invalidated by the US Court of Appeals in 1984. In Asbestos Info. Ass’n v. OSHA, 727 F.2d 415 (5th Cir. 1984), the court rejected the ETS because OSHA did not  sufficiently support its conclusion of a “grave danger,” i.e., that 80 people would die in the next six months without the ETS and that OSHA could not show that an asbestos ETS was “necessary” given its existing respiratory standard.

As an additional legal hurdle, OSHA, in the last administration, has already gone on record that an ETS is unnecessary, and won that position in federal court. On June 11, 2020, the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied the AFL-CIO’s petition for a writ of mandamus to compel OSHA to issue an ETS for Infectious Diseases. The three-judge panel found that “OSHA reasonably determined that an ETS is not necessary at this time” given the “unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the regulatory tools that the OSHA has at its disposal to ensure that employers are maintaining hazard-free work environments, see 29 U.S.C. § 654(a).” The panel held that “OSHA’s decision not to issue an ETS is entitled to considerable deference.”

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OSHA Issues Immediately Effective COVID-19 National Enforcement Program and Updated Enforcement Guidance: No ETS Yet

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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On March 12, 2021, OSHA took two significant new actions to enhance its enforcement actions regarding COVID-19 workplace safety: (1) establishing the National Emphasis Program – COVID-19 (the NEP) targeting higher hazard industries for OSHA enforcement action; and (2) updating and replacing its former Interim Enforcement Response Plan for COVID-19 (the Enforcement Plan) to prioritize in-person worksite inspections by OSHA Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHO). This action is in response to President Biden’s January 21, 2021 Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, in which he directed OSHA to “launch a national program to focus OSHA enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 on violations that put the largest number of workers at serious risk or are contrary to anti-retaliation principles.” Executive Order (EO) No. 13999, § 2(d), 86 FR 7211 (Jan. 26, 2021). Although the Executive Order (§ 2(b)) also required OSHA to consider whether to issue a COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), and to do so by March 15, 2021 if determined necessary, these two new OSHA policy documents are not an ETS. Instead, OSHA has buried in the text of both the NEP and the Enforcement Plan that “in the event that” OSHA issues an ETS, the ETS will be used instead of a General Duty Clause violation as the basis for citations with respect to COVID-19 safety violations, which will be enforced through the new NEP and Enforcement Plan.

A National Emphasis Program is an OSHA enforcement policy procedure, developed in accordance with OSHA’s Directives System, through which OSHA decides how it is selecting sites for enforcement initiatives. An OSHA enforcement response plan informs CSHO how to conduct their enforcement activities, whether in regard to an NEP, a particular hazard, or otherwise. In this case, the NEP and the Enforcement Plan together tell employers the categories of workplaces and the types of enforcement procedures that are OSHA’s highest COVID-19 safety priorities.

In the NEP, OSHA is targeting those specified industries whose workers “have increased potential exposure to [a COVID-19] hazard, and that puts the largest number of workers at serious risk.” NEP, p. 1. The NEP also focuses on making sure that “workers are protected from retaliation,” including by referring allegations of retaliation to OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program. Id. OSHA makes clear that its NEP is to “augment” its continuing enforcement actions at all workplaces where it receives a complaint, severe incident report, or referral involving COVID-19 safety issues.

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OSHA under Deadline for a Nationwide COVID 19 Workplace Safety Rule: Four States’ Existing Laws and New Federal Guidance and Orders Foretell the Future

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On his first full day in office, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, which required OSHA to “consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID‑19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary,” and if so, to issue such emergency temporary standards (ETS) by March 15, 2021. Executive Order 13999, § 2(b) (Jan. 21, 2021), 86 FR 7211 (Jan. 26, 2021). An ETS, which skips the initial notice and comment process before it is in effect, can be issued pursuant to Section 6(c) of the OSH Act if OSHA determines that employees are exposed to “grave danger” and that an emergency standard is necessary to protect them from the grave danger. 29 U.S.C. § 655(c).

Putting aside that OSHA has not successfully issued an ETS since 1978, including that the last attempt to issue an ETS, regulating asbestos exposure, was invalidated by the US Court of Appeals in 1984,[1] OSHA now has several models for a COVID‑19 ETS from which it may draw. Specifically, California, Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia are among the 22 states and territories that administer and enforce their own state-plan OSHA, rather than rely solely on federal standards and enforcement.[2] These four states have developed their own COVID‑19 safety regulations that apply to most, if not all, workplaces in their respective states, and have both distinctive features and commonalities. Employers would be well-advised to be aware of each of the states’ specific standards, not only to comply with regulatory requirements in that state, but to consider whether their workplace is ready for potential, nationwide regulations which may incorporate elements of these states’ approaches.

With OSHA under a Presidential deadline to issue a nationwide COVID-19 safety regulation, we review the current status of OSHA guidance; describe the basic elements of the four states’ regulations; and look at recent federal orders by other agencies to anticipate what employers nationwide may soon be facing.

US OSHA: COVID‑19 Regulation and Guidance in the Prior Administration

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Virginia’s COVID-19 Workplace Safety Regulation Is Permanent: A National Model

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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

In July 2020, we reported that Virginia, an OSHA State-plan State, was the first in the country to issue a workplace safety regulation specifically addressing COVID‑19. At that time, the Virginia standard was issued as a temporary emergency rule, which would expire by January 27, 2021, unless made permanent. On the expiration date, Governor Northam formally approved a revised version of the temporary emergency rule, 16VAC25-220, “Final Permanent Standard for Infectious Disease Prevention of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus That Causes COVID‑19, applicable to all regulated workplaces in the Commonwealth (the “Permanent Standard”). Although described as permanent, by its own terms, within 14 days of the expiration of the Governor’s temporary declaration for the COVID‑19 pandemic, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s Safety and Health Codes Board must meet to determine whether there remains an ongoing need for the COVID-19 workplace safety regulation. § 20B.[1] The Permanent Standard is immediately effective, except that the program documentation and training requirements go into effect on March 26, 2021.  The Permanent Standard will be enforced by the Department of Labor and Industry, which operates the Virginia State Plan for Occupational Safety and Health (“VOSH”).

Like the temporary standard, the Permanent Standard requires all employers to implement certain basic protections and procedures and then increases the protective measures based on whether the “exposure risk level” for the workplace or specific job tasks should be classified as very high, high, medium, or lower. Outside the healthcare industry, first responders, mortuary services, and correctional and detention facilities, Virginia places of employment and job tasks are categorized as “medium” or “lower” exposure risk levels. The difference between “medium” and “lower” exposure risk levels is whether the work requires “more than minimal occupational contact within six feet with other employees, other persons, or the general public …”. § 30.

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Biden Administration Confirms COVID-19 Liability Protections for Federal Contractors, Employees and Volunteers

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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On February 16, 2021, Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (“HHS”) Norris Cochran, published in the Federal Register the Sixth Amendment to the Declaration Under the Public Readiness and Emergency Act [“PREP Act”].  86 Fed. Reg. 9516-9520 (Feb. 16, 2021).  This is the second amendment to the Declaration issued since President Biden took office and continues the Trump Administration’s practice of providing broad liability protection for those responding to COVID‑19.

The Declaration originally was issued on January 31, 2020, by former HHS Secretary Azar.  Pursuant to the PREP Act, the Declaration allows the Secretary to extend liability immunity to “covered persons” for taking allowed actions with respect to “covered countermeasures,” in prescribed circumstances, all as declared by the Secretary.  A “covered person” is “immune from suit and liability under Federal and State law for all claims of loss caused by, arising out of, relating to, or resulting from the administration or use of a covered countermeasure,” which includes FDA-authorized COVID‑19 vaccines and tests.  See 42 U.S.C. § 247d‑6d(a)(1).  Under the PREP Act, “covered persons” include “manufacturers,” distributors,” “program planners,” “qualified persons,” and their “officials, agents and employees.”  42 U.S.C. § 247d-6d(i)(2). 

In the Sixth Amendment to the Declaration, the Acting Secretary augmented the “covered persons” protected from liability with an additional category of “qualified persons.”  Although the Unites States is, by statute, a “covered person,” the structure of the statutory provision defining “covered person” does not make clear that direct contractors and employees of the United States are similarly covered.  See 42 U.S.C. § 247d-6d(i)(2).  To clear up that ambiguity, the Sixth Amendment provides that a “qualified person” includes “any Federal government employee, contractor or volunteer who prescribes, administers, delivers, distributes or dispenses a Covered Countermeasure,” if the federal department or agency “has authorized or could authorize” that person “even if those authorized duties or responsibilities ordinarily would not extend to members of the public or otherwise would be more limited in scope than the activities such employees, contractors or volunteers are authorized to carry out under this declaration.”  86 Fed. Reg. at 9519 (Feb. 16, 2021).

This expanded liability protection is fully consistent with and will support President Biden’s National Strategy for the COVID‑19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, which envisions federal vaccination sites and “deploy[ing] thousands of federal staff, contractors and volunteers to support state and local vaccination efforts.”  See National Strategy, pp. 9, 52.


EPA Approves Additional Pesticide Products to Use as COVID-19 Disinfectants

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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

U.S. EPA recently has approved two new products for use on surfaces in the battle to kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID‑19.

On February 10, 2021, EPA announced that it had approved a copper alloy product, made of at least 95.6 % copper, as a product that kills the virus upon contact.  Thus, all products containing the copper alloy product can be sold as providing long-term disinfection against the virus.  Specifically, EPA’s approved use on surfaces of the copper alloy product registered to the Copper Development Association (“CDA”) [EPA Reg. No. 82012‑1].  CDA’s registration had previously been approved under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act (“FIFRA”), for more than a decade, albeit for other purposes.  Products using the approved antimicrobial copper alloys will be added to EPA’s List N appendix of supplemental antimicrobial products that can be used to kill SARS‑CoV‑2 virus particles that contact surfaces treated with the copper alloys.     

Perhaps anticipating EPA’s action, on February 1, 2021, New York State Senator Timothy Kennedy sponsored a bill, S3905, in the New York State Senate to require the use of EPA’s approved copper alloy product in all touch surfaces in new, publicly funded construction projects.  As of this writing, the bill is in committee for consideration.  On January 7, 2021, Assembly Member Marianne Buttenschon had introduced the same language in a bill, A998, in the New York Assembly, where it also is being considered in committee.

In addition to the copper alloy surface approval, on January 15, 2021, EPA issued a FIFRA Section 18 emergency exemption for an antiviral treatment of the air, Grignard Pure, which can be used in indoor spaces to kill SARS-CoV-2.  Section 18 of FIFRA allows EPA to approve, on an emergency basis, federal agencies’ and states’ petitions to allow the use of pesticides for previously unregistered uses.  The emergency exemption for public health reasons lasts only for a year.  To date, EPA has issued only two emergency exemptions to address SARS-CoV-2.

Most recently, on January 15, 2021, EPA granted emergency exemptions to Georgia and Tennessee for the use of Grignard Pure, which forms a mist that contains triethylene glycol (“TEG”) as the active ingredient that kills the virus upon contact in the air.  TEG is an ingredient commonly used in fog machines, but only for its theatrical effects, not as a pesticide.  EPA stated that, the product can be applied only by a “trained professional in certain indoor spaces in Georgia and Tennessee where high occupancy, prior ventilation or other factors make it challenging to follow public health guidance and maintain appropriate social distancing.”  Based on laboratory testing, Grignard Pure, when activated, “will continuously inactivate 98% of airborne SARS‑CoV‑2 particles,” EPA explained.  Using Grignard Pure does not eliminate the need for mask wearing and social distancing, EPA warned.

Prior to the Grignard Pure emergency exemption, the only other FIFRA Section 18 emergency exemption that EPA had granted in the fight against SAR-CoV‑2 was a product called SurfaceWise2, which was approved for the use in American Airlines airport facilities and airplanes in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and in limited health facilities in Texas.  SurfaceWise2, manufactured by Allied BioScience, is a surface coating that can be used with electrostatic sprayers, that inactivates the virus within two hours of its application.  That one-year exemption currently expires in August 2021.


California OSHA Issues Comprehensive and Demanding COVID-19 Emergency Regulation

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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On the afternoon of November 30, 2020, the California Office of Administrative Law (OAL) issued the final approval, allowing the emergency COVID‑19 regulation proposed by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) and approved by the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Board) on November 19. The emergency regulation, establishing new sections 3205, 3205.1 through 3205.4 to Title 8, Division 1, Chapter 4 (General Industry Safety Orders) of the California Code of Regulations (CCR) is titled “COVID‑19 Prevention.” The COVID‑19 Prevention Rule is attached here as approved by the OAL. The COVID‑19 Prevention Rule is immediately effective on November 30, 2020. As an emergency regulation, it expires by October 21, 2021, unless it is extended or made permanent.

California, which as a “state-plan State,” can adopt workplace safety and health regulations more stringent than US OSHA regulations and guidance, has through its emergency regulatory process adopted a COVID‑19 regulation that applies to “all employees and places of employment” in California, except if the employees are working from home, the place of employment has only one employee “who does not have contact with other persons,” or employees when covered by California’s Aerosol Transmissible Diseases regulation, 8 CCR § 5199, which applies only to health care services, facilities, and operations. 8 CCR § 3205(a)(1). 

The basic construction of the COVID‑19 Prevention Rule follows the elements of California’s Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) rule, 8 CCR § 3203, and requires that all employers prepare and adopt a written program with the same elements of employee communication, hazard identification, inspections, hazard correction, training, controls, reporting, recordkeeping and access, but adds substantive requirements relating to COVID‑19 within each of those elements, and adds elements unique to an employer’s response to and control of COVID‑19. The COVID‑19 Prevention Rule also has provisions affecting aspects of an employer’s operations beyond its traditional safety and health scope, including an obligation to “continue and maintain an employee’s earnings, seniority and all other employee rights and benefits, including the employee’s right to their former job status, as if the employee had not been removed from their job” for employees who are otherwise able to work, but are excluded from the worksite for work-related COVID‑19 exposures and quarantines. 8 CCR § 3205(10)(C).

Other notable aspects of the regulation include:

  • Definitions of COVID‑19 “exposure”, “symptoms”, “high-risk exposure period”, “exposed workplace”, periods of exclusion from the workplace (quarantine and isolation) and return-to-work criteria, that do not match the CDC’s current approach for essential workforces and which do not allow for any future changes in CDC guidelines regarding the length of isolation, quarantine, or return-to-work criteria.
  • Employers must provide viral testing for all employees excluded under Cal-OSHA’s broad definition of “exposed workplace,” up to twice weekly depending on the severity of an outbreak at the workplace.
  • Employers, with employee participation, must “conduct a workplace-specific identification of all interactions, areas, processes, equipment and materials that could potentially expose employees to COVID‑19 hazards.” 8 CCR § 3502 (c)(2)(D).
  • Specific requirements regarding controls, including physical distancing, face coverings, ventilation, disinfection, cleaning, hygiene, PPE and engineering controls.
  • Employers must provide notice within one business day of all COVID‑19 cases in the exposed workplace to employees “who may have had COVID‑19 exposures and [their union representative] and to all other employers/contractors in the workplace. 8 CCR § 3502 (c)(3)(B)3. (See also recently enacted revision to Labor Code § 6409.6 (AB 685).)
  • Employers must communicate hazards, policies and procedures to employees and all “other employers, persons, and entities within or in contact with the employer’s workplace.” 8 CCR § 3502 (c)(1)(D)
  • Specific requirements regarding COVID‑19 case investigation that must be documented and provided to any employee, employee representative, Cal-OSHA, or local health agencies.
  • Employers must have a documented procedure for investigation of COVID‑19 cases in the workplace, with many specific steps required in the COVID‑19 Prevention Rule.
  • Requirements for employer-provided transportation to and from the workplace and employer-provided housing. 8 CCR §§ 3205.3 and 3205.4.

Merely preparing the written program document, in addition to the required procedures and protocols, will be a significant undertaking for almost all California employers. In the public hearing before the Board, Cal-OSHA representatives minimized the additional burden placed on employers given its view that employers already should have already undertaken much of the effort to update their basic IIPP document. Cal-OSHA representatives stated, however, that it recognized that employers would have to take some time to get all the requirements in place and would exercise enforcement discretion given the regulation’s immediate effective date. Cal-OSHA also informed the Board that it planned to issue interpretive guidance and other materials, but did not specify a date by which it would do so. Cal-OSHA stated that it would hold Advisory Committee meetings with employers and employees regarding refining the Rule, but noted that the agency did not expect to propose any changes in the regulatory language in the near-term.

For more information or advice on how to comply and implement the COVID‑19 Prevention Rule, please contact the author.  Additional information regarding working during the COVID‑19 pandemic can be found on this blog and in Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


Amazon Workers’ COVID-19 Workplace Safety Lawsuit Dismissed

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 Song

By Gabrielle Sigel  and Leah M. Song

Covid-19

 

On November 2, 2020, Judge Cogan of the U.S. District for the Eastern District of New York dismissed the amended complaint of workers at Amazon’s Staten Island JFK8 fulfillment center (“JFK8”) against their employer over its alleged non-compliance with state and federal public health guidance and law during the COVID‑19 pandemic. Palmer. v. Amazon.com Inc., No. 20-cv-02468, U.S. Dist. Ct. E.D.N.Y., Doc. 73, Nov. 2, 2020 (“Op.”).

The workers alleged issues with the company’s productivity requirements preventing basic hygiene, limited air-conditioned break rooms impeding social distancing, inadequate contact tracing, and lack of communication and pay regarding COVID‑19 leave at the JFK8 facility. The amended complaint asserted claims for (i) public nuisance, (ii) breach of the duty to provide a safe workplace under New York Labor Law (“NYLL”) § 200, (iii) failure to timely pay COVID‑19 leave under NYLL § 191, and (iv) an injunction against future failure to timely pay COVID‑19 leave. Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief for their first, second, and fourth causes of action, and damages for their third cause of action.

On August 11, 2020, Amazon moved to dismiss the action based on the theory of primary jurisdiction, workers’ compensation law exclusivity, and other grounds. Judge Cogan granted Amazon’s motion to dismiss the public nuisance and workplace safety duty claims, without prejudice, based on the federal doctrine of primary jurisdiction, which “seeks to maintain a proper balance between the roles of courts and administrative agencies,” allowing a district court to choose not to rule in favor of having a matter addressed by an administrative agency. Op. at 8. Judge Cogan found that the “central issue in this case is whether Amazon’s workplace policies at JFK8 adequately protect the safety of its workers during the COVID‑19 pandemic,” which the court framed as a question of whether that issue is best handled by OSHA or the court. Id. at 10.  The court noted that, although OSHA has not issued a regulatory standard specific to COVID‑19, this “does not mean…that OSHA has abdicated its responsibilities during the pandemic. Rather, the agency has exercised its discretion in determining how to proceed in the face of an evolving pandemic fraught with uncertainty.” Id. The court reasoned that it was “not expert in public health or workplace safety matters, and lack[s] the training, expertise, and resources to oversee compliance with evolving industry guidance.” Id. at 11. Furthermore, the court found that “[p]laintiffs’ claims and proposed injunctive relief go to the heart of OSHA’s expertise and discretion.” Id. The court further held that the “risk of inconsistent rulings further weighs in favor of applying the doctrine of primary jurisdiction” as “[c]ourts are particularly ill-suited to address this evolving situation” and OSHA would be able to impose more flexible and uniform policies across the industry. Id. Therefore, the court dismissed plaintiffs’ public nuisance and NYLL § 200 claims, “so that plaintiffs may determine whether to seek relief through the appropriate administrative and regulatory framework.” Id. at 12.  

Moreover, the court held that, even if the court did not defer to OSHA’s primary jurisdiction, it would dismiss the public nuisance claim because New York law requires that a private action for public nuisance allege that the plaintiff sustained special injury not common to the public at large. Finding that an increased risk of contracting COVID‑19 is “common to the New York City community at large” and the JFK8 facility is “not the source of COVID‑19,” the court held that plaintiffs could not maintain a public nuisance claim. Id. at 13-14. The court also found that, although the state safe workplace claim under NYLL § 200 is not preempted by the OSH Act, plaintiffs’ claims for past injuries, even for injunctive relief, are precluded by the language of New York’s workers’ compensation law, which makes workers’ compensation the exclusive remedy for workers’ claims against employers “for any liability whatsoever.” Id. at 14-20.

The court also dismissed plaintiffs’ NYLL § 191 claims regarding failure to pay timely COVID‑19 sick leave, finding that the statute addresses claims for prompt payment of “wages,” not sick leave. In reaching that decision, the court rejected the NY State Department of Labor’s recent COVID‑19 guidance in which it stated that prompt payment of COVID‑19 sick leave was subject to NYLL § 191’s requirements. Id. at 21-24.

Another example of a case in which a court relied on the primary jurisdiction clause to dismiss COVID‑19 workplace safety claims against an employer is Rural Community Workers Alliance (“RCWA”) v. Smithfield Foods, Inc., No. 5:20-cv-06063 (N.D. Mo.) from May 5, 2020. In that case, the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri granted Smithfield Foods’ (“Smithfield”) motion to dismiss pursuant to the primary jurisdiction doctrine. The RCWA plaintiffs alleged two common law claims: (1) Smithfield’s practices at the meat processing plant constituted a public nuisance; and (2) Smithfield had breached its duty to provide a safe workplace. The plaintiffs, an employee and a workers advocacy group, sought only injunctive relief to require Smithfield to comply with OSHA/CDC guidance issued for the entire meat processing industry, and importantly, did not allege that they or any of their members had contracted COVID‑19 at the plant.

The Missouri federal case dismissed the case with prejudice, based on the federal primary jurisdiction doctrine. The court found and deferred to OSHA’s primary jurisdiction to interpret and apply its guidance and to the rights, albeit limited, that plaintiffs can seek through OSHA’s administrative and judicial processes. Id. at 14-17. In addition, the court found that plaintiffs had not met their “extraordinary burden” of proving a right to preliminary injunctive relief. Id. at 17. The court found that, despite the prevalence of COVID‑19 in the community and in the plant, the plaintiffs had not suffered “irreparable harm” because they alleged only the possibility of death or serious illness in the future. Id. at 18-20. The court found that “unfortunately, no one can guarantee health for essential workers – or even the general public – in the middle of this global pandemic.” Id. at 19. Thus, because the employer was taking measures to control the spread and there no confirmed COVID‑19 cases currently, “the court cannot conclude that the spread of COVID‑19 at the Plant is inevitable or that Smithfield will be unable to contain it if it occurs.” Id. at 20. The court also noted, when balancing the harms of granting (or denying) the injunction that “no essential-business employer can completely eliminate the risks that COVID‑19 will spread to its employees through the workplace. Thus, it is important that employers make meaningful, good faith attempts to reduce the risk.” Id.

The court also found that plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on the merits of their nuisance claim because the employer had taken “significant measures” and there were no occurrences of the disease. Id. at 21-22. Similarly, the court found that plaintiffs would not be able to prove that Smithfield had breached its duty to provide a safe place to work, because the company “has taken substantial steps to reduce the protection for COVID‑19 exposure” and appeared to be complying with the OSHA/CDC guidance. Id. at 22.

Please feel free to contact the authors with questions or for further information. For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


CDC Changes Definition of “Close Contacts” for Contact Tracing Purposes: What Does This Mean for Employers?

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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

I.  The New CDC Definition of Close Contacts

On October 21, 2020, the CDC published a new definition of “Close Contact” for contact tracing purposes.  This new definition will affect how employers determine Close Contacts for purposes of internal contract tracing to limit and prevent exposures and spread of the coronavirus within the workplace.  The new CDC definition can be found here:  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/contact-tracing/contact-tracing-plan/appendix.html#contact  Quoting from the CDC link:

“Someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period* starting from 2 days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to test specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated.

* Individual exposures added together over a 24-hour period (e.g., three 5-minute exposures for a total of 15 minutes). Data are limited, making it difficult to precisely define “close contact;” however, 15 cumulative minutes of exposure at a distance of 6 feet or less can be used as an operational definition for contact investigation. Factors to consider when defining close contact include proximity (closer distance likely increases exposure risk), the duration of exposure (longer exposure time likely increases exposure risk), whether the infected individual has symptoms (the period around onset of symptoms is associated with the highest levels of viral shedding), if the infected person was likely to generate respiratory aerosols (e.g., was coughing, singing, shouting), and other environmental factors (crowding, adequacy of ventilation, whether exposure was indoors or outdoors). Because the general public has not received training on proper selection and use of respiratory PPE, such as an N95, the determination of close contact should generally be made irrespective of whether the contact was wearing respiratory PPE.  At this time, differential determination of close contact for those using fabric face coverings is not recommended.”

Previously, CDC had defined “Close Contact” to mean someone who spent at least 15 consecutive minutes within six feet of a person confirmed to be have COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.

II. What Does the New Definition Mean for Employers (Outside the Healthcare Industry)

Under CDC guidance, an employer should quarantine any Close Contact employee, i.e., the Close Contact employee should not be allowed on the worksite and should be told to quarantine per CDC guidance.  If the Close Contact develops symptoms or tests positive, in which case the Close Contact becomes an infected person who is in isolation per CDC guidance. Notably, the CDC also states that, at this time, whether an infected person or the exposed person was wearing a mask during the exposure period does not affect the determination of a Close Contact for these purposes.  However, the CDC does recognize that the determination of a Close Contact is “difficult to precisely define” and suggests that other factors may be considered, such as whether the infected person had symptoms at the time of exposure, whether the infected person was engaged in activities “likely to generate respiratory aerosols,” and environmental conditions, such as whether the exposure occurred indoors and the adequacy of indoor ventilation.

Per CDC guidance, the quarantine period is for 14 days, which typically means that the employee is not at the worksite, but can work remotely if their circumstances, including any labor agreement, so allows.  The CDC recognizes, however, that a mandatory worksite quarantine period for Close Contacts could cause severe consequences for employers of “Critical Infrastructure Workers,” typically as defined by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (“CISA”).  Thus, the CDC provides an exception to the 14-day worksite quarantine for asymptomatic Critical Infrastructure Workers – they may continue to work at the standard workplace(s) if they adhere to protective measures  prior to and during their work shift, including: pre-screening and regular monitoring for fever and other symptoms; wearing a face mask “at all times while in the workplace;” maintaining at 6-foot distance and practice social distancing “as work duties permit;” and working in areas that are frequently cleaned, including common areas and commonly shared equipment.

Although the CDC suggests that determinations of close contact can be affected by factors other than proximity and duration of exposure, it provides no guidance on how to account for those other factors in the course of the determination.  Most employers are going to need to rely on clearly defined and easily understood rules, so that a workplace contact tracing program can be appropriately administered. Thus, most employers likely will continue to rely only on the more easily determined proximity and duration factors.

As a result of CDC’s change to the definition of Close Contact to include anyone in close proximity within a cumulative 15-minute period, rather than a consecutive 15-minute period, more employees may be designated as Close Contacts and, therefore, more employees may need to be precluded from working on-site, particularly those who cannot be classified as Critical Infrastructure Workers.  Although an employer typically cannot prevent an exposure from occurring outside the workplace, an employer’s best “defense” to potential coronavirus exposure in the workplace, and the resulting Close Contact designation, is adherence to and enforcement of 6-foot distancing for all workplace activities, both during more social activities (such as in breakrooms, cafeterias, restrooms) and during job tasks. 

Other Related CDC Sites:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/guidance-manufacturing-workers-employers.html

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/open-america/non-healthcare-work-settings.html

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/critical-workers/implementing-safety-practices.html

Questions?  Please contact Gabrielle Sigel, 847-710-3700, GSigel@jenner.com

Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on these matters, as well as other important COVID‑19 related guidance, as they unfold.


U.S. OSHA Issues Guidance on Returning to Work

SongSigel

 

By Leah M. Song and Gabrielle Sigel 

Covid-19

 

On June 18, 2020, U.S. OSHA issued its “Guidance on Returning to Work,” (“Reopening Guidance”) compiling best practices and existing regulatory standards to assist employers and workers return to work and reopen businesses characterized as non-essential in the earlier weeks of the COVID‑19 pandemic. OSHA described the purpose of the Reopening Guidance as a supplement to OSHA’s first COVID-19 guidance for all employers, issued on March 9, 2020, titled “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID‑19,” and to the White House’s April 16, 2020 “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again,” both of which have been analyzed on the Jenner & Block Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog here and here, respectively.  In its news release introducing the Reopening Guidance, OSHA states that “[n]on-essential businesses should reopen as state and local governments lift  stay-at-home … orders, and follow public health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal requirements or guidelines.”

The Reopening Guidance states that it “focuses on the need for employers to develop and implement strategies. . .” for safe work after reopening. Although OSHA does not directly state that employers must have written reopening plans, OSHA’s Reopening Guidance provides the following “guiding principles” that employers’ reopening plans “should address”:

  • Hazard Assessment
  • Hygiene
  • Social distancing
  • Identification and Isolation of Sick Employees
  • Return to Work After Illness or Exposure
  • Controls
  • Workplace Flexibilities
  • Training
  • Anti-retaliation

(Reopening Guidance, pp. 6-10.) OSHA then provides suggestions on how to implement each of the “guiding principles.” Id. For instance, the Hazard Assessment guiding principle includes “practices to determine when, where, how, and to what sources of SARS-CoV-2 workers are likely to be exposed in the course of their job duties.” The Reopening Guidance provides several examples of how to implement hazard assessments, such as assessing job tasks to determine which involve occupational exposure to the virus and exposure to other members of the public or coworkers. In the discussion of the guiding principle of “Controls,” OSHA addresses PPE and makes clear, as it did in its Face Coverings guidance on June 10, 2020, that face coverings are not PPE. (Reopening Guidance, p. 8.) OSHA repeats this distinction regarding PPE in its discussion of the guiding principle of “Training.” OSHA states that although employers should train workers on how to don/doff, clean, store, maintain, and dispose of PPE, face coverings are not PPE, indicating that those training procedures are not for face coverings. (Reopening Guidance, p. 9.)  The CDC, however, has issued more comprehensive guidelines regarding use of face coverings.  OSHA concludes its discussion of the guiding principles by stating:  “Regardless of the types of infection prevention and control measures employers incorporate into their reopening plans, they should consider ways to communicate about those measures to workers, including through training … and providing a point of contact for any worker questions or concerns.”  

In the Reopening Guidance, OSHA reiterates what it states on its COVID‑19 webpage, that during the pandemic, employers continue to be responsible for complying with OSHA regulations. In the Reopening Guidance, OSHA provides an Appendix A organizing those regulatory requirements in table format. In addition, OSHA states that “[w]here there is no OSHA standard specific to SARS-CoV‑2, employers have the responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards” under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause. 29 CFR 654(a)(1). (Reopening Guidance, p. 11.)

The Reopening Guidance (pp. 11-16) concludes with a series of Employer FAQs, addressing the following topics:

  1. OSH Act does not prohibit worksite COVID‑19 testing, but OSHA cautions that a negative result may not indicate no hazard;
  2. OSH Act does not prohibit worksite temperature checks or health screenings;
  3. OSHA requirements when performing tests and screening, including to protect employees who are performing screenings and to maintain records generating employee medical information;
  4. Referencing the sources of other equal employment laws, other than the OSH Act, pertaining to health and medical issues;
  5. Referencing the CDC as the source of guidelines for a sick employee’s safe return to work; and
  6. Advising, in general, how employers can determine whether OSHA-required PPE is needed.

As with all its published guidance, OSHA states that it is “not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations.”

Please feel free to contact the authors with questions or for further information. For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


U.S. Court of Appeals Denies AFL-CIO’s Petition for OSHA COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard

SongSigel

 

By Leah M. Song and Gabrielle Sigel 

Covid-19

 

On June 11, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (“AFL-CIO”) petition for a writ of mandamus to compel OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard for Infectious Diseases (“ETS”), providing regulations to protect workers against coronavirus exposure in the workplace.

The three-judge panel, consisting of Judges Henderson, Wilkins, and Rao, found that “OSHA reasonably determined that an ETS is not necessary at this time” given the “unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the regulatory tools that the OSHA has at its disposal to ensure that employers are maintaining hazard-free work environments, see 29 U.S.C. § 654(a).” The statutory section referenced by the court, includes the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“the OSH Act”), which states that each employer “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1). The statute also requires that each employer shall “comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(2). The panel held that “OSHA’s decision not to issue an ETS is entitled to considerable deference.”

Following the Court’s ruling, Solicitor of Labor Kate O’Scannlain and OSHA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt stated in a news release: “We are pleased with the decision from the D.C. Circuit, which agreed that OSHA reasonably determined that its existing statutory and regulatory tools are protecting America’s workers and that an emergency temporary standard is not necessary at this time. OSHA will continue to enforce the law and offer guidance to employers and employees to keep America’s workplaces safe.” The ALF-CIO has the right to ask for a rehearing, including en banc, i.e., by all the judges appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit grew out of written requests that the AFL-CIO and more than 20 unions, including unions for healthcare workers, sent to OSHA in early March.  They asked OSHA to issue an ETS, rather than have employers rely solely on existing OSHA regulations and new COVID-19 guidance.  They requested an ETS that would include a requirement that all employers devise and implement an infection control plan and implement the necessary controls. After the AFL-CIO sent a letter on April 28, 2020, to the Secretary of Labor calling on the agency “to take immediate action to protect the safety and health of workers from exposure to COVID-19 on the job,” the Secretary responded two days later and stated that an ETS was not necessary.

On May 18, 2020, the AFL-CIO filed its petition for a writ of mandamus in the U.S. Court of Appeals to compel OSHA to issue an ETS within 30 days. The petition was based on Section 6(c) of the OSH Act, which states that OSHA “shall provide…for an emergency temporary standard to take immediate effect upon publication in the Federal Register if [it] determines (A) that employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards, and (B) that such emergency standard is necessary to protect employees from such danger.” 29 U.S.C. § 655(c)(1). The AFL-CIO argued in its court petition that the COVID-19 pandemic is “exactly the type of workplace catastrophe that Congress intended an emergency temporary standard to address.” Given the risks facing essential workers and those returning to work, the AFL-CIO requested an expedited briefing and disposition of the petition and for OSHA to be given 10 days to respond.

On May 29, 2020, OSHA filed its response to the AFL-CIO’s petition, describing its efforts to protect workers during the pandemic through enforcing “existing rules and statutory requirements” and providing “rapid, flexible guidance.” OSHA emphasized the extreme nature of an ETS and how an ETS is rarely used as it “imposes a mandatory standard immediately without public input” and “stays in place…until a permanent rule informed by comment is put in place just six months later.” OSHA argued that 1) the AFL-CIO failed to demonstrate legal standing to bring the petition for a writ of mandamus; 2) an ETS is not “necessary” given OSHA’s existing specific rules, the general duty clause and would otherwise be counterproductive to OSHA’s COVID-19 efforts; and 3) “an ETS would foreclose ongoing policy assessments by the executive branch, Congress, and the states.” The National Association of Home Builders of the United States and other business associations filed amicus curiae briefs in support of OSHA’s position.

On June 2, 2020, the AFL-CIO filed its reply brief  defending its legal standing to bring the case based on its representation of workers in highly impacted industries and that at least 660 of its members have died as a result of COVID-19. The AFL-CIO continued to stress that an ETS is necessary given the “urgent situation” and “grave danger” that COVID-19 presents. Additionally, the AFL-CIO stated that “Congress required OSHA to issue standards despite inevitable scientific uncertainty,” and an ETS does provide flexibility navigating new scientific information since “an ETS can be issued and modified without notice and comment.” The AFL-CIO clarified that the OSH Act requires the agency to issue an ETS, “not that it requires a static, uniform, or all-encompassing ETS.”

In denying AFL-CIO’s petition, the court did not address OSHA’s standing argument, ruling solely on the substance of AFL-CIO’s petition.

Of note, OSHA regulations do not have direct application to the 22 states who have their own state occupational safety and health agencies and regulations governing private employers. One of those “state plan states” is California.  On May 20, 2020, the Labor & Employment Committee of the National Lawyers Guild and Worksafe, a California nonprofit “dedicated to ensuring occupational safety and health rights of vulnerable workers,” filed a petition for a temporary emergency standard before the California Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board (“the Board”). The petitioners requested that the Board create two new California safety regulations. First, the petitioners requested “a temporary emergency standard that would provide specific protections to California employees who may have exposure to COVID-19, but are not protected by the Aerosol Transmissible Diseases standards (Sections 5199 and 5199.1).” The petitioners recommended that the Board consider their draft emergency temporary standard for the Board’s consideration of language for an emergency standard. The petitioners’ draft parallels the framework of the Injury and Illness Prevention Program, but adding COVID-19 related provisions, such as identifying an employee representative, establishing various procedures, and analyzing job hazards and implementing preventative measures. Second, the petitioners requested that the Board enter into “a permanent rulemaking effort to protect workers from infectious diseases including novel pathogens,” such as COVID-19. As of June 11, 2020, the Board has not yet issued its decision on the petition.

Please feel free to contact the authors with questions or for further information. For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.

OSHA Faces FAQs on Face Coverings

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On June 10, 2020, in a series of six “frequently asked questions and answers” (Face Coverings FAQs), OSHA provided its first general guidance on the use of cloth face coverings in the workplace.  In announcing the FAQs, OSHA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Loren Swett, stated that it was issuing the guidance because “millions of Americans will be wearing masks in their workplace for the first time” and “OSHA is ready to help workers and employers understand how to properly use masks so they can stay safe and healthy in the workplace.”

The Face Coverings FAQs document is the first COVID-19 guidance that OSHA has provided in a Q&A format.  In this format, OSHA’s guidance may not provide straightforward answers to many employers’ questions.  For most employers, the most important takeaway from the Face Coverings FAQs is: Cloth face coverings are not OSHA-required personal protective equipment (“PPE”), which must be provided and paid for by an employer; however, an employer may recommend or require cloth face coverings as a method of non-PPE virus “source control” and as part of a COVID-19 infection response plan.  OSHA does not address whether employer-required cloth face coverings, when required as non-PPE “source control,” must be paid for by the employer.

Here are some key points from the Face Coverings FAQs:

  • Cloth face coverings are used to “contain the wearer’s potentially infectious respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks and to limit the spread of … the virus that causes … COVID-19, to others.” By “containing” droplets, rather than protecting the wearer against “droplets,” cloth face coverings are solely used for “source control”, not wearer protection.
  • “Source control” is to prevent people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic “from spreading potentially infectious respiratory droplets to others.”
  • Cloth face coverings, whether homemade or commercially produced, “are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE)” under OSHA’s PPE regulations, 29 CFR 1910.132.
  • Cloth face coverings are different from PPE, such as medical face masks (surgical masks) or respirators, because the sole purpose of cloth face coverings is as source control.
  • Because face coverings are not PPE, “OSHA’s PPE standards do not require employers to provide them.” However, “OSHA generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work,” as a method of source control.
  • Because cloth face coverings are not necessary PPE, an employer cannot be required under OSHA’s PPE standards to provide them at no cost to workers.
  • Employers can require cloth face coverings. Specifically, employers “may choose to ensure that cloth face coverings are worn as a feasible means of abatement in a control plan designed to address hazards from …the virus that causes COVID-19.” (emphasis added)  In those circumstances, employers are “choos[ing] to use cloth face coverings as a means of source control,” in combination with engineering and administrative controls, such as social distancing. 
  • Cloth face coverings cannot be a substitute for social distancing measures.
  • Cloth face coverings cannot be used by “those who have trouble breathing or are otherwise unable to put on or remove a mask without assistance.”
  • Employers “have discretion” as to “whether to allow employees to wear cloth face coverings…based on the specific circumstances present at the work site.” For example, an employer can determine that cloth face coverings cannot be used if they “present[] or exacerbate[] a hazard” or are incompatible with otherwise required PPE. 
  • If the employer determines that cloth face coverings are inappropriate, “employers can provide PPE, such as face shields and/or surgical masks,” instead of encouraging face masks. In a footnote, OSHA explains that when surgical masks are used solely for “source control,” they are not considered “PPE,” which would be required to be provided and paid for by the employer under the PPE regulations.
  • Neither cloth face coverings nor surgical masks can be used as a substitute for respirators, when respirators are required. Respirators prevent the wearer from inhaling small particles, and must be provided and used according to OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard, 29 CFR 1910.134.
  • Per existing regulation, filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs), such as N95s, can be used by employees “voluntarily,” if they first receive certain required information regarding their use and hazards.
  • Even though cloth face coverings are not required pursuant to PPE regulations, OSHA twice refers to an employer’s statutory obligations under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” In those references, OSHA refers to using cloth face coverings as source covering one “feasible method” to address hazards from the virus in the workplace.

OSHA makes important distinctions between a cloth face coverings and “medical face masks”, of which surgical masks are an example. A surgical mask is not necessarily approved by the FDA as a medical device.  Both medical face masks and cloth face coverings fail to protect the wearer against airborne transmissible agents because of their loose fit, and both can be used to “contain the wearer’s respiratory droplets”, i.e., “source control”. However, in contrast with cloth face coverings, surgical masks can be PPE if they are used to “protect workers against splashes and sprays (i.e., droplets) containing potentially infectious materials.”  However, a surgical mask also may not be considered PPE, when it is used solely as “source control.” Thus, with respect to surgical masks, OSHA is making the distinction between PPE and non-PPE based on the purpose for which the employer uses it—if the mask is used solely for purposes of “source control,” it is not PPE; if the mask is used for wearer protection against others’ droplets, it is PPE.  However, because “cloth face coverings” are defined to exclude protecting the worker from others’ infection, if an employer is stating that it is using a piece of equipment as a method of wearer protection, the employer will be required to show that, in fact, the device can provide that protection and treat it as PPE.

OSHA’s references to the General Duty Clause are worth repeating and analyzing.  In the Face Covering FAQs, OSHA makes a distinction between what is required by existing regulations, such as the PPE or Respiratory Protection standards, and what may be required under the General Duty Clause.  In other guidance, OSHA has stated that the General Duty Clause is one of the "OSHA requirements" that “apply to preventing occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2.” In the first comprehensive guidance OSHA issued regarding COVID-19, at page 7, OSHA stated that developing an infectious disease response plan is a step that all employers can take to guard against the workplace risks of exposure to the virus.

In the context of the General Duty Clause, OSHA’s Face Covering FAQs guidance states that an employer’s “control plan designed to address hazards” from the virus and COVID-19 can include “control measures,” including engineering controls, administrative controls (such as social distancing), PPE, and different methods of virus “source control,” all as “feasible methods” to address the hazards. OSHA also describes non-PPE as a “means of abatement” under the General Duty Clause.  Thus, especially because of the potentially broad scope of the General Duty Clause, an employer would be well-advised to have a COVID-19 response plan, which should include an identification of the risk of workplace exposure (it may be low) and descriptions of engineering and administrative controls, PPE, and other controls for the risk of exposure to the virus in the workplace.  Consistent with the Face Coverings FAQs guidance, the response plan should carefully distinguish between equipment to be used as required PPE and equipment required or allowed to be used as “source control.”

Please feel free to contact the author with questions or for further information.  For regular updates about the impact of COVID 19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID 19 Resource Center.


Employers are Back in the Workplace: So is OSHA!

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On May 19, 2020, in recognition of many more businesses opening their workplaces in response to governors modifying stay-at-home orders and the President’s urging businesses to reopen across the country, OSHA revised two of its prior COVID-19 enforcement policies, thereby informing employers that OSHA would no longer grant enforcement discretion regarding the recording of work-related COVID-19 exposure cases and that OSHA intended to conduct more onsite inspections of alleged workplace violations and complaints, particularly those focusing on COVID-19 issues. 

OSHA began its announced changes in enforcement policies by stating that, “The government and the private sector have taken rapid and evolving measures to slow the virus’s spread, protect employees, and adapt to new ways of doing business.”  The two revised policies are to “ensure employers are taking action to protect their employees” as workplaces reopen.  Both new policies go into effect on May 26, 2020.

OSHA’s first policy change is to its own enforcement procedures.  OSHA plans to increase in-person inspections of “all types of workplaces.”  OSHA stated that it can conduct more onsite inspections because the risk to OSHA inspectors is lower and the PPE that OSHA inspectors would need is “more widely available.” Thus, OSHA will rescind its April 13, 2020, Interim Enforcement Response Plan for COVID-19, which stated OSHA's temporary policy of suspending most onsite inspections in favor of written and telephonic communications with employers.  Under the May 26, 2020 Updated Interim Enforcement Response Plan, OSHA intends to return to its pre-pandemic approach for determining whether to respond to employee complaints by (a) in-person investigation; (b) non-formal telephonic investigations; and/or (c) requests that employers respond in writing to a complaint, such as through a Rapid Response Investigation in response to a reported fatality or work-related in-patient hospitalization.  However, in all cases, OSHA intends to “continue to prioritize COVID-19 cases.” 

OSHA’s updated policy also provides that in geographic areas with sustained or resurgent cases of community transmission, OSHA’s Area Directors have the discretion to prioritize onsite inspections for cases of fatalities and imminent danger exposures, particularly in “high-risk workplaces, such as hospitals and other healthcare providers treating patients with COVID-19 [and] workplaces with high numbers of complaints or known COVID-19 cases.”

OSHA’s second announced enforcement policy change concerns OSHA’s recordkeeping regulations, which obligates employers in many businesses with 10 or more employees to record certain cases of employee illness as a recordable case on OSHA-required logs of work-related injuries and illnesses.  The recordkeeping regulation provides that if the employee has a confirmed case of COVID-19, which is “work-related” as defined in OSHA regulation, 29 CFR § 1904.5, and for which the employee received medical treatment beyond first aid or days away from work (the latter almost always being the case), the employee’s illness is recordable. 

The challenge to employers in the case of a community-wide communicable disease is knowing whether the employee’s illness is “work-related.”  In OSHA’s April 10, 2020 enforcement discretion policy issued on this topic, OSHA recognized that for all workplaces except those with a high-risk of exposure to COVID-19-positive people (e.g., COVID-19 hospital wards and prisons), employers did not have to take action to determine whether an employee’s illness was due to a work-related exposure and thus recordable.  In the new OSHA policy, effective May 26, 2020, all employers, regardless of COVID-19 exposure risk levels, must determine whether an employee’s illness is work-related. 

However, OSHA recognizes that, “[g]iven the nature of the disease and ubiquity of community spread, … in many instances it remains difficult to determine whether a COVID-19 illness is work-related, especially when an employee has experienced potential exposure both in and out of the workplace.”  Thus, if the employer conducts a “reasonable and good faith inquiry” and the employer “cannot determine whether it is more likely than not that exposure in the workplace played a causal role…., the employer does not need to record that COVID-19 illness.” (Emphasis added.)

OSHA will consider whether an employer has made a “reasonable determination of work-relatedness” by evaluating:

  • The reasonableness of the employer's investigation into work-relatedness. OSHA states that employers should “not be expected to undertake extensive medical inquiries, given employee privacy concerns and most employers' lack of expertise in this area.” Instead, in response to known employee illness, the employer should “(1) ask the employee how he believes he contracted the COVID-19 illness; (2) while respecting employee privacy, discuss with the employee his work and out-of-work activities that may have led to the COVID-19 illness; and (3) review the employee's work environment for potential exposure,” including other cases in that environment.
  • The evidence available to the employer.“Available” evidence can be information both available at the time of the investigation and learned later by the employer.
  • The evidence that a COVID-19 illness was contracted at work. OSHA will evaluate “all reasonably available evidence… to determine whether an employer has complied with its recording obligation.” Such evidence can include clusters of cases in the work environment or whether the employee had “frequent, close exposure to the general public in a locality with ongoing community transmission” and in either case there is “no alternative explanation.”  On the other hand, a case is “likely not work-related,” if the employee had “close” and “frequent” exposure to someone outside the workplace who was infectious during the relevant time period.

Especially because OSHA can do its own post hoc determination of the reasonableness of the employee’s decision, employers should document their investigation of each case of an employee COVID-19 illness.

OSHA ends its revised policy by cautioning employers that, regardless of whether an employee’s illness is recordable, “as a matter of health and safety” [subtext: subject to potential OSHA enforcement], the employer should respond to protect other workers when it learns that one employee has become ill.  OSHA does not describe, however, what those next steps should be.

Please feel free to contact the author with questions or for further information.  For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


OSHA Promises Relaxed Enforcement during Pandemic if Employers Make “Good Faith Effort” to Comply with Non-Achievable Recurring Requirements

Sigel

 Song

By Gabrielle Sigel  and Leah M. Song

Covid-19

 

On April 17, 2020, OSHA posted an April 16, 2020 enforcement guidance, which, for the first time, recognized that due to COVID-19, employers were not able to feasibly comply with a wide-range of OSHA regulatory requirements.  In a memorandum titled, “Discretion in Enforcement when Considering an Employer’s Good Faith Efforts during the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic” (“Good Faith Guidance”).  OSHA instructed its Compliance Officers that they should exercise enforcement discretion and not issue citations for regulatory violations if employers made a “good faith effort” but ultimately could not comply with regulations requiring “annual or recurring audits, reviews, training, or assessments” (collectively, “Recurring Requirements”).  The Good Faith Guidance takes effect immediately, applies to all OSHA-regulated industries, and continues “until further notice.”

In support of its enforcement discretion decision, OSHA found that, due to widespread business shutdowns in response to COVID-19, many employers were not able to perform certain mandatory Recurring Requirements, such as annual audiograms, Process Safety Management revalidations and reviews, respirator spirometry testing, annual training requirements, and inspection, certification, and relicensing activities.  As further support, OSHA noted that the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine had advised that all occupational spirometry testing for respirator use be suspended, and the Council for Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation recommended that all audiometric evaluations be suspended. 

Given these circumstances, OSHA stated that an employer should not be cited for failure to comply with Recurring Requirements if the employer demonstrates that it made “good faith efforts,” as follows:

  • “Thoroughly explored all options” to comply with regulatory requirements, such as virtual or remote trainings;
  • Implemented any interim alternative protections, such as engineering or administrative controls;
  • Took steps to reschedule the required annual activity as soon as possible; and
  • Ensured that employees were not exposed to hazards from tasks, processes, or equipment for which they were not prepared or trained

If an employer was unable to comply with Recurring Requirements because the workplace was required to close entirely, the employer should demonstrate a “good faith attempt to meet the applicable requirements as soon as possible following the re-opening of the workplace.” 

Given the Good Faith Guidance, employers would be well-advised to document their good faith efforts to comply with Recurring Requirements and why it was not possible to comply.  Although OSHA Compliance Officers have been directed to take an employer’s good faith efforts into “strong consideration” before issuing a citation, the Compliance Officer must document the regulatory violation and the good faith efforts in its case file.  In addition, in a program to be developed “at a later date,” OSHA plans to conduct monitoring inspections of locations where violations occurred but were not cited to “ensure that corrective actions have been taken once normal activities resume.”

The Good Faith Guidance supplements other previously issued OSHA enforcement discretion guidance memos and enforcement directives arising out of the COVID-19 health emergency, which have been analyzed in Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.

For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center and the Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog.


White House Reopening Guidelines: How Will Workplaces Open Up Again?

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On April 16, 2020, the White House issued “Guidelines:  Opening Up America Again”  (Guidelines), with criteria for how state and local officials, employers and individuals should approach reopening segments of their communities after various stay-at-home orders, essential-business regimens and other social distancing measures that Federal, State and local governments have issued in response to the coronavirus and COVID-19. 

The Guidelines recommend a three-phased approach to reopening, with “Gating Criteria” before States can begin Phase One.  An important component to the Guidelines are the directions to all employers and to industry-specific employers.  In general, until a state or locality is in Phase Two, when schools are allowed to reopen, burdens on employers and employees will not significantly diminish.  It is only in Phase Three that the workplace will begin to resemble “pre-COVID-19” conditions.

The “Gating Criteria” for States, before Phase One can begin, include 14-day downward trajectories in symptoms and cases, having non-crisis care treatment of all patients, and having a “robust program” for testing “at-risk” healthcare workers.  In addition, the Guidelines describe “Core State Preparedness Responsibilities” regarding testing, contact tracing, healthcare system capacity and other safety and health plans for the community, before Phase One can begin.  One of the “Core State Preparedness Responsibilities” is to “protect the health and safety of workers in critical industries.” 

The Guidelines include specific recommendations for employers in all phases of the reopening process, as follows: 

Develop and implement appropriate policies, in accordance with Federal, State, and local regulations and guidance, and informed by industry best practices, regarding:

  • Social distancing and protective equipment
  • Temperature checks
  • Testing, isolation and contact tracing
  • Sanitation
  • Use and disinfection of common and high-traffic areas
  • Business travel

Monitor workforce for indicative symptoms. 

Do not allow symptomatic people to physically return to work until cleared by a medical provider.

Develop and implement policies and procedures for workforce contact tracing following employee COVID+ test.

Compliance with these Guidelines can impose on employers significant costs, business interruptions and other burdens.  For example, due to personnel and supply chain shortages, many employers will have limited ability to conduct temperature and symptom checks or to provide protective equipment.  In addition, effective contact tracing within the workplace can be procedurally difficult, time-consuming and require additional, trained personnel.

The Guidelines also have more specific directions impacting employers for each phase of reopening.

Phase One

In Phase One, the Guidelines discourage gatherings of more than 10 people, such as trade shows, minimize non-essential travel and recommend that “vulnerable individuals” continue to shelter in place.  “Vulnerable individuals” are those who are “elderly” (an undefined term) or who have “serious underlying health conditions.”  The Guidelines remind individuals that if someone has a vulnerable individual in the household “by returning to work or other environments where distancing is not practical, they could carry the virus back home.” 

These precautions can make certain workers reluctant to return to work and may require additional flexibility or hiring criteria by employers.  In addition, in Phase One, schools and organized youth activities are to remain closed, which will place burdens and challenges on all businesses, whether they seek to remain open or to reopen anew. 

Under the Guidelines, all employers are to do the following in Phase One:

  • Continue to ENCOURAGE TELEWORK whenever possible and feasible with business operations.
  • If possible, RETURN TO WORK IN PHASES.
  • Close COMMON AREAS where personnel are likely to congregate and interact, or enforce strict social distancing protocols.
  • Minimize NON-ESSENTIAL TRAVEL and adhere to CDC guidelines regarding isolation following travel.
  • Strongly consider SPECIAL ACCOMMODATIONS for personnel who are members of a VULNERABLE POPULATION.

Reopening of restaurants is not generally addressed in the Guidelines, except in the context of “large venues,” which in Phase One “can operate under strict physical distance protocols.”  Examples of “large venues” are “sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues and places of worship.”  Bars are recommended to remain closed, but gyms may re-open, with protections.  Senior Living facilities and hospital should remain on shut-down to outside visitors, but elective surgeries can resume with precautions.

Phase Two

Most importantly for employers, schools and youth activities can reopen in Phase Two.  However, precautions about protecting vulnerable individuals continue, including the concern about workers in the same household potentially affecting those individuals.

The concern about public gatherings and social settings is targeted to groups of more than 50 people, unless “precautionary measures are observed.”  Examples or a definition of “precautionary measures” are not provided.  In this phase, non-essential travel can be resumed for individuals and in the workplace. 

For all employers, the Phase Two Guidelines recommend:

  • Continue to ENCOURAGE TELEWORK whenever possible and feasible with business operations.
  • Close COMMON AREAS where personnel are likely to congregate and interact, or enforce moderate social distancing protocols.
  • NON-ESSENTIAL TRAVEL can resume.
  • Strongly consider SPECIAL ACCOMMODATIONS for personnel who are members of a VULNERABLE POPULATION.

“Large venues” can operate under “moderate physical distancing protocols,” another term which is undefined.  Bars can reopen “with diminished standing-room occupancy, where applicable and appropriate.”

Phase Three

Phase Three has limited directions or restrictions on the workplace.  “Vulnerable individuals can resume public interactions” but should practice physical distancing and undefined “precautionary measures.”  All other populations “should consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments.”  Employers, however, can “resume unrestricted staffing.”  Large venues are recommended to “operate under limited physical distancing protocols” and bars can increase standing room occupancy.

Some level of physical distancing and undefined “precautionary measures” are to be maintained throughout all three phases described in the Guidelines.  The Guidelines do not provide a marker for when the protections described in the last, Third Phase, can be lifted. 

Please feel free to contact the author with questions or for further information.  For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


OSHA to Manufacturers: Coronavirus "Safety Tips” in an “Alert” to Manufacturing Employers

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19

On April 16, 2020, OSHA released an “alert” with “safety tips” that manufacturing employers “can follow to help protect manufacturing workers from OSHA liability.”  (“Manufacturers Alert”) (emphasis added).  Although the “alert” is not a regulation which OSHA can directly enforce, OSHA may attempt to use an alert as a basis for imposing liability on employers under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause.  In any case, employers should expect that OSHA compliance officers will use the Manufacturers Alert to evaluate enforcement options in response to employee complaints about coronavirus exposure in the workplace.  In addition, employees may view the Manufacturers Alert as a checklist to evaluate their workplaces and for complaints to OSHA and their employers.  The full list of OSHA’s “tips” are provided at the end of this article.

OSHA’s Manufacturers Alert was issued on the same day that the White House issued its guidelines for “Opening Up America Again” (“the Guidelines”).  The Guidelines include recommendations specifically targeted to employers prior to a State or region reopening for business.  Notably, OSHA’s Manufacturers Alert did not include several precautions or directions to employers that were listed in the Guidelines, including directions to employers to conduct symptom monitoring, temperature checks, and contact tracing, and to obtain clearance by a medical provider before a symptomatic worker can return to the workplace.

According to the Guidelines, all employers should:

Develop and implement appropriate policies, in accordance with Federal, State, and local regulations guidance, and informed by industry practices, regarding:

  • Social distancing and protective equipment
  • Temperature checks
  • Testing, isolating, and contact tracing
  • Sanitation
  • Use and disinfection of common and high-traffic areas
  • Business travel

Previously, OSHA published “Ten Steps All Workplaces Can Take to Reduce Risk of Exposure to Coronavirus.”  The Manufacturers Alert adds six-foot physical distancing to those “Ten Steps” and tells manufacturing employers to consider limiting closer work or taking “innovative approaches” to limit exposures during closer work.  Unlike the Ten Steps, the Manufacturers Alert also includes directions to allow workers to wear masks at work and to train workers on donning, doffing, and maintaining protective clothing and equipment.

OSHA’s Manufacturers Alert lists the following 12 “tips:”

  • Encourage workers to stay home if they are sick.
  • Establish flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), if feasible.
  • Practice sensible social distancing and maintain six feet between co-workers, where possible.
  • For work activities where social distancing is a challenge, consider limiting the duration of these activities and/or implementing innovative approaches, such as temporarily moving or repositioning workstations to create more distance or installing barriers (e.g., plexiglass shields) between workstations.
  • Monitor public health communications about COVID-19 recommendations for the workplace and ensure that workers have access to and understand that information.
  • Train workers on how to properly put on, use/wear, take-off, and maintain protective clothing and equipment.
  • Allow workers to wear masks over their nose and mouth to prevent spread of the virus.
  • Encourage respiratory etiquette, including covering coughs and sneezes.
  • Discourage workers from using other workers’ tools and equipment.
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency-approved cleaning chemicals from List N or that have label claims against the coronavirus.
  • Promote personal hygiene. If workers do not have access to soap and water for handwashing, provide alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60 percent alcohol. Provide disinfectants and disposable towels workers can use to clean work surfaces.
  • Encourage workers to report any safety and health concerns.

For regular updates about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally, please visit Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


OSHA to Most Employers: Limited Exemption from Recording Requirement for Employees’ COVID 19 Cases

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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19On April 10, 2020, US OSHA partially retracted its initial instructions to employers, which had required employers to evaluate employees who contracted COVID‑19 as potential recordable occupational illnesses under OSHA’s injury/illness recordkeeping rules, 29 CFR Part 1904.  According to its new “Enforcement Guidance for Recording Cases of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID‑19),” (Recording Guidance), in most cases, OSHA will not enforce its recordkeeping rules that otherwise would have required all employers to make determinations as to whether “workers who contacted COVID‑19 did so due to exposures at work.”  However, OSHA did not retract its basic position that COVID‑19 “is a recordable illness,” which must be recorded as a work-related illness on OSHA 300 logs (or their equivalent) if:  (1) the employee has a “confirmed case of COVID‑19” based on at least one positive test for the virus; (2) the COVID‑19 is “work-related,” per 29 CFR § 1904.5, i.e., the disease is contracted from exposure in the work environment; and (3) the case meets recording criteria, including a significant illness diagnosed by a healthcare professional or days away from work.  Instead, OSHA recognized that in areas with community-spread of the coronavirus, most employers “may have difficulty” making determinations that COVID‑19 cases were due to exposures at work, so those employers would no longer have to affirmatively investigate whether the employee’s COVID‑19-positive diagnosis was work-related in order to avoid the risk of an OSHA enforcement action for a recordkeeping violation.

OSHA’s “enforcement discretion” towards an employer’s obligation to record COVID‑19 cases has several important caveats:

First, healthcare emergency response organizations, and correctional institutions (here, Non‑Exempt Employers) would continue to be required to determine whether an employee’s COVID‑19 diagnosis was due to workplace exposure.

Second, OSHA’s enforcement discretion apparently is limited to areas where there is community transmission of the virus.

Third, all employers would continue to be required to determine that an employee’s COVID‑19 diagnosis is a work-related case, if:

  1. “There is objective evidence that a COVID‑19 case may be work related [such as if] a number of cases develop[] among workers who work closely together without an alternative explanation” and
  2. The “objective evidence” is “reasonably available to the employer . . . [such as if] information [is] given to the employer by employees” or the employer learns information in the “ordinary course of managing its business and employees.”

If a case is recorded, the employer must keep the employee’s name confidential “if an employee voluntarily requests” that the employer do so.  Although OSHA’s Recording Guidance does not expressly address OSHA’s requirement to report serious and fatal illnesses to OSHA, because the reporting requirement is triggered by hospitalizations or fatalities due to a “work-related incident,” if, in reliance on the Recording Guidance, an employer does not determine that the illness is a work-related case, it follows that the case also would not be a reportable case. 

OSHA stated that it was granting this enforcement discretion in order to allow employers more time to focus on “good hygiene practices” and otherwise mitigating the effects of COVID‑19 in the workplace.  This Recording Guidance supplements OSHA’s general guidance on COVID‑19 preparedness in the workplace and OSHA COVID-19 enforcement guidances issued to address certain aspects of its respiratory protection rules, as well as OSHA’s new workplace poster, entitled “Ten Steps All Workplaces Can Take to Reduce Risk of Exposure to Coronavirus.”

For more information about the impact of COVID‑19 in the workplace and on business generally go to Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.


OSHA to Employers: Some Relief from Respiratory Protection Rules in the Face of N95 Shortages

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19On April 3, 2020, U.S. OSHA issued two Enforcement Guidance memos which, for the first time, provide guidance to all industries, including healthcare, regarding how to comply with OSHA rules in the face of N95 shortages.  The first document is entitled “Enforcement Guidance for Respiratory Protection and the N95 Shortage Due to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic” (N95 Shortage Guidance).  The N95 Shortage Guidance informs all employers whose employees are required to use, or permitted to voluntarily use, respiratory protection, the limited circumstances in which an OSHA inspector may, on a “case-by-case basis, exercise enforcement discretion” when an employer deviates from OSHA’s current respiratory protection standards, including OSHA’s principal rules at 29 CFR §1910.134 (the Respiratory Standard).  While offering some relief from the threat of an OSHA enforcement action, the N95 Shortage Guidance also serves to reemphasize employers’ continuing obligations under the Respiratory Standard despite the short, often non-existent, supply of respiratory protection equipment. 

Employers’ continuing obligations in the face of shortages include:

  1. Manage your respiratory protection program (RPP) in accordance with the Respiratory Standard and “pay close attention to shortages of N95s.”
  2. Identify and evaluate respiratory hazards.
  3. Develop, implement, and document worksite-specific procedures to address changes in use of N95s and other respiratory protection.
  4. Revise your written RPP to reflect changes in workplace conditions caused by the N95 shortage and COVID-19.

For the first step completing these obligations, “all employers should reassess their engineering controls, work practices, and administrative controls” to identify how to decrease the need for N95s.  OSHA suggests alternatives to use of N95s, e.g., use of wet methods or portable local exhaust systems and moving the task requiring use of respiratory protection outdoors.  More cautiously, OSHA states that “[i]n some instances, an employer may also consider taking steps to temporarily suspend certain non-essential operations.”  However, OSHA does not require that employers stop performing tasks with respiratory hazards. 

Under the N95 Shortage Guidance, if N95 alternatives are not possible and “respiratory protection must be used” OSHA provides a series of decision-making options:

  • Use alternative classes of NIOSH-approved respirators if they “provide equal or greater protection” compared to N95s.
  • If NIOSH-approved alternatives are not available, or use of these alternatives create additional hazards, then employers may:
    • Implement extended use or reuse of N95s, with extended use preferred over reuse; or
    • Use NIOSH-approved N95s past the manufacturer’s recommended shelf life, but only if the equipment’s integrity has not been compromised.

OSHA then states further requirements for the use of any of these options, including documenting the use of options in written RPPs and providing additional training to employees on the new procedures.  In the health care industry only, OSHA refers employers to the CDC’s guidance on the hierarchy of decisions applicable in case of expired N95s, but states that its N95 Shortage Guidance is not intended to cover COVID-19 “crisis standard of care” scenarios.

In the second guidance document issued on April 3, 2020, entitled “Enforcement Guidance for Use of Respirators Protection Equipment Certified under Standards of other Countries or Jurisdictions” (Respirator Use Guidance), OSHA provides the hierarchy of decision-making that constitutes making a “good-faith effort” to provide appropriate respiratory protection:

  • Implement OSHA’s hierarchy of controls to eliminate or substitute out workplace hazards
  • Prioritize efforts to acquire and use equipment as follows:
    • NIOSH-certified
    • Foreign-certified, as listed by OSHA, other than by China
    • China-certified [without any NIOSH certificate]
  • Only use equipment beyond shelf life if in non-compromised condition
  • Extended use or reuse in accordance with CDC’s Strategies for Optimizing the Supply of N95 Respirators
  • Use homemade masks or other improvised face coverings “only as a last resort”

The Respirator Use Guidance also summarizes other requirements for respiratory protection, including training, documenting changes in procedures and conditions, and equipment inspection.

The two April 3 Enforcement Guidance documents accompany OSHA’s March 14, 2020 enforcement guidance regarding respirator fit-testing for health care employers only, previously discussed by the author here.  See Jenner & Block’s “Corporate Environmental Lawyer” blog and Jenner & Block’s COVID-19/Coronavirus Resource Center for frequently updated information for businesses and organizations worldwide.


Does the OSH Act Give an Employee the Right to Refuse to Work Due to Fear of Workplace COVID-19 Exposure?

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 Song

By Gabrielle Sigel  and Leah M. Song

Covid-19

Responding to COVID‑19, many state and local governments are issuing orders encouraging or requiring workers to stay at home (“Stay-At-Home Order”) unless their employment is deemed to be in an “essential business” or “critical infrastructure industry.” Whether working in an essential business or where no Stay-At-Home Order has been issued, employees may express concerns about, or refuse, coming to work due to fear of contracting COVID‑19 at work.  The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSH Act” or “the Act”) prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for exercising rights under the Act.  If an employer fires or takes other action against an employee who walks off the job due to COVID‑19 fears, is the employee exercising a right under the Act, such that the employer could face a government lawsuit for retaliating against the employee?  Although this discussion is limited to refusal to work rights and responsibilities under the OSH Act, as with many issues raised by the novel coronavirus, the answer will be fact-specific and may be unique to this public health crisis.  After analyzing the applicable law below, we provide practical suggestions for how employers and their counsel can analyze the issue if raised at their workplace.

I.  The OSHA Anti-Retaliation Provisions

Since the OSH Act’s enactment in 1970, Section 5(a)(1) of the Act states that “[e]ach employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” 29 U.S.C. § 654 (“the General Duty Clause”).  From its beginning, the OSH Act also has provided that an employer cannot “discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee” because the employee complains about a safety issue to management or OSHA or “because of the exercise by [an] employee on behalf of himself or others of any right afforded by this Act.”  29 U.S.C. § 660(c) (“Section 11 of the OSH Act”); see also 29 CFR Part 1977.  If an employer takes discriminatory action in retaliation, the Secretary of Labor (“the Secretary”) can sue the employer, under Section 11 of the OSH Act, in federal district, to require reinstatement, back pay, and “all appropriate relief.”  29 U.S.C. § 660(c)(2).  However, the OSH Act does not expressly address how employees can exercise their rights when there is an imminent risk of death or serious bodily injury and a reasonable belief that there is not sufficient time or opportunity to seek redress from OSHA or the employer.

Interpreting Section 11 in 1973, OSHA issued its anti-retaliation regulation at 29 CFR § 1977 (the “OSHA anti-retaliation regulation”), addressing whether, under what circumstances, and how an employee could refuse to perform work under the Act.  Section 1977.12(b)(1) (emphasis added) states:

[A]s a general matter, there is no right afforded by the Act which would entitle employees to walk off the job because of potential unsafe conditions at the workplace. Hazardous conditions which may be violative of the Act will ordinarily be corrected by the employer, once brought to his attention. If corrections are not accomplished, or if there is dispute about the existence of a hazard, the employee will normally have opportunity to request inspection of the workplace pursuant to section 8(f) of the Act, or to seek the assistance of other public agencies which have responsibility in the field of safety and health. Under such circumstances, therefore, an employer would not ordinarily be in violation of section 11(c) by taking action to discipline an employee for refusing to perform normal job activities because of alleged safety or health hazards.

29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(1) (emphasis added).

Despite this initial statement that employees do not have the right to walk off the job, in the next paragraph the regulation acknowledges that exigent circumstances may exist that would trigger employee protections for refusing to work.  Section 1977.12(b)(2) states:  “[O]ccasions might arise when an employee is confronted with a choice between not performing assigned tasks or subjecting himself to serious injury or death arising from a hazardous condition at the workplace,” and, on those occasions, an employer cannot take action against the employee.  29 CFR § 1977.12(b)(2).  Specifically, if:  (1) “the employee, with no reasonable alternative, refuses in good faith to expose himself to the dangerous condition;” (2) “a reasonable person… would conclude that there is a real danger of death or serious injury;” (3) due to the urgency of the situation, there is insufficient time “to eliminate the danger through resort to regular statutory enforcement channels;” and (4) the employee “sought from his employer, and was unable to obtain, a correction of the dangerous condition,” an employer taking action against the employee refusing to work could be subject to a Section 11 lawsuit brought by the Secretary.  Id.; see also 29 U.S.C. § 660(c).

OSHA has published guidance on the issue, Workers’ Right to Refuse Dangerous Work, cautioning that “OSHA cannot enforce union contracts that give employees the right to refuse to work,” but explaining the steps that workers should take if they believe working conditions are dangerous, the employer fails to eliminate the imminent danger, and there is not enough time to address the condition through regular enforcement channels:

  1. Ask your employer to correct the hazard, or to assign other work;
  2. Tell your employer that you won’t perform the work unless and until the hazard is corrected; and
  3. Remain at the worksite until ordered to leave by your employer.

Notably, this OSHA guidance does not answer the question presented by COVID‑19:  an employer’s obligations and an employee’s rights when OSHA’s direction to “remain at the worksite” is at the root of an employee’s claim of a dangerous condition.  

II.  Caselaw and OSHA Guidance Interpreting Section 11 and the OSHA Anti-Retaliation Regulation

Continue reading "Does the OSH Act Give an Employee the Right to Refuse to Work Due to Fear of Workplace COVID-19 Exposure?" »

White House and Congress Use Liability Immunity to Address the Shortage of Respirators in Healthcare Settings

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19Due to COVID-19, the nation’s healthcare industry is facing a severe shortage of respiratory protection equipment for healthcare workers. Both Congress and the White House have recently taken steps to try to address that shortage by enacting liability immunity under the Families First Coronavirus Response law, signed late on March 18, 2020. These provisions protect manufacturers, distributors, and others of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”)-designated industrial respirators from any claims of liability arising from their use during the response to COVID-19. The intent is that this would increase the supply of NIOSH-approved small-particular filtering respirators from those who manufacture or have on-hand respirators that previously had not been FDA-approved as medical devices.

As explained in OSHA’s Hospital Respiratory Protection Program Toolkit: Resources for Respirator Program Administrators (May 2015), respirators are different from facemasks, including surgical masks. Fluid-resistant facemasks are loose-fitting devices that can protect the healthcare worker from larger droplets of infectious bodily fluids from patients, and vice versa. Facemasks “are not considered respiratory protection— facemasks do NOT provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller particles, including those emitted into the room air by a patient who is exhaling or coughing, or generated during certain medical procedures.” Id. at 5. Respirators, on the other hand, protect the hospital worker from both large and small infectious particles in the air (smaller particles are known as “aerosols”). An N95 respirator is a half-mask air-purifying device with NIOSH-approved N95 filters or filtering material. The “95” refers to the NIOSH specification that the respirator filter at least 95% of airborne particles. N95 respirators can be designed for single-use or in a mask that allows re-use after replacement of N95 filter or cartridges, and, in contrast with facemasks, they are designed to form a tight seal on the user’s face. Another type of respirator that protects against inhalation of aerosols is an “air-supplying respirator,” which provides clean air from a source other than the immediate ambient air. Self-contained breathing apparatus, commonly known as “scuba equipment,” is an example of an air-supplying respirator.

Although N95 respirators are generally used in all workplaces where control of inhalation of smaller-sized particles is required to reduce hazards, in order to use such respirators in a hospital, in general, the manufacturer must have its devices approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medical device. Certain N95 respirators can be outfitted with the additional splash protection of a surgical mask, and are called a “surgical respirator,” “medical respirator,” or “surgical N95.” Those devices are deemed a medical device, which must be approved by both the FDA and by NIOSH for their particle-filtering ability Non-surgical N95s are not typically used in a hospital setting and a manufacturer and others may be reluctant to supply them for hospital use, particularly given the potential liability risks from their use in that setting.

Faced with a shortage of surgical N95 respirators, the White House turned to manufacturers and users of industrial N95s as an additional source. On March 2, 2020, the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), pursuant to section 564 of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), that allows the emergency, COVID-19 use of designated NIOSH-certified N95 respirators in the health care setting. The EUA also stated that certain NIOSH-approved respirators that had passed the manufacturer’s recommended shelf-life also could be used in certain circumstances.

The March 2, 2020 EUA did not address protection of industrial manufacturers from liability for use of respirators in medical settings. On March 11, 2020, the FDA clarified the EUA by stating that the FDA had deemed general use N95 respirators as medical devices within the meaning of 201(h) of the FDCA and eligible for liability protections under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act of 2005, 42 U.S.C. § 247d-6d (“the Public Readiness Act”). Under the Public Readiness Act, certain devices, called “countermeasures,” are entitled to broad liability immunity during their use in response to a public health emergency. Specifically, a “covered person” is forever immune from liability for any type of “loss” associated with the use of a designated “countermeasure,” including death, physical, mental, or emotional injury, fear of such injury, including medical monitoring, and damage to property including business interruption. 42 U.S.C. § 247d-6d(a)(1)-(2). A “covered person” includes the United States, manufacturers and distributors of the countermeasure, and all employees of a manufacturer or distributor of a designated countermeasure. 42 U.S.C. § 247d-bd(i)(2). Liability protection is provided regardless of whether the countermeasure is sold, donated or otherwise provided and used for medical services.

On March 14, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 6201, the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” which in Division F, Section 6005, designated personal respiratory protective devices approved by NIOSH (42 CFR part 84) and designated by the FDA in the March 2, 2020 EUA, as a “covered countermeasure” subject to all liability immunities under the Public Readiness Act.” The U.S. Senate passed the bill, without amendment, on March 18, 2020, and later that day, the bill was signed into law by the President. Industrial respirators will remain a liability-protected countermeasure if they are used to address COVID-19 anytime between January 27, 2020 and October 1, 2024, in response to the public health emergency declared by the Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex M. Azar II on January 31, 2020.

In the meantime, as supplies continue to be short, the CDC has issued guidelines for how medical providers should triage their use of respiratory protective equipment. The guidelines issued as of March 19, 2020 are here.

OSHA Issues Temporary Enforcement Guidance on Healthcare Employers’ Requirements for Fit-Testing of Respirators

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19One of the current Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations on center stage as a result of the health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 is OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR § 1910.134 (“the Standard”).  On March 14, 2020, OSHA issued a Temporary Enforcement Guidance, entitled “Healthcare Respiratory Protection Annual Fit-Testing for N95 Filtering Facepieces During the COVID-19 Outbreak” (“Temporary Guidance”).  Although directly applicable only to the healthcare industry, the Temporary Guidance portends what may become the new normal for all industries that require respirator use and that are continuing to operate during the COVID-19 crisis. 

In general, the Standard requires employers to provide respirators at the appropriate level of protection when it is necessary to protect employees from workplace inhalation hazards.  The Standard also requires such employers to have a written program addressing respirator use, and to implement procedures including for start-up and annual medical evaluation and fit-testing, training, and cleaning of respirators.  Through the Temporary Guidance, OSHA Compliance Officers are provided instructions from OSHA headquarters regarding enforcement of the Standard in the healthcare industry in light of the supply shortages of N95 filtering facepiece respirators. 

The Temporary Guidance notes that the CDC recommends that healthcare providers who are providing direct care to patients with known or suspected COVID-19 to, among other things, use personal protective equipment (“PPE”), such as respirators.  In the Temporary Guidance, OSHA recommends that if N95 respirators are not available, healthcare employers should provide a respirator of “equal or higher protection,” e.g. N99 or N100 filtering facepieces, reusable elastomeric respirators, or powered air purifying respirators.  In addition, to conserve resources, OSHA recommends that fit-testing of filtering facepiece respirators continue, but that employers use a qualitative, non-destructive method, rather than a quantitative, destructive method for fit-testing.  The CDC has its own guidelines regarding what healthcare workers should do when they are facing a shortage of N95 respirators.

With respect to enforcement, OSHA directed all offices to “exercise enforcement discretion” concerning the annual fit-testing requirement, 29 CFR § 1910.134(f)(2), if employers take other actions to mitigate risks to employees, including:

  • Make a “good-faith effort” to comply with the Standard.
  • Use only NIOSH-certified respirators [see concerns regarding counterfeit respirators].
  • Perform initial fit-testing for employees using the same model, style, and size of respirator that the employee will actual use.
  • Train employees regarding how to perform a “seal check” each time a respirator is donned.

Other requirements that OSHA is relying on to mitigate risk and avoid non-compliance are listed in the Temporary Guidance.


U.S. OSHA Issues Guidance for Employers Regarding Preparing for COVID-19 Risks

Sigel

By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice

Covid-19On March 9, 2020, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” (“Guidance”) compiling best practices and existing regulatory standards for evaluating and preparing for risks to workers from exposure to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. OSHA urges that “it is important for all employers to plan now for COVID-19.” (p. 3) The Guidance describes: (1) how a COVID-19 outbreak could affect workplaces; (2) steps employers can take to reduce workers’ risk of exposure; (3) classification of jobs into categories of risk and controls to protect workers in each category; and (4) how to protect workers living or traveling outside the U.S.

OSHA acknowledges that “[w]hile there is no specific OSHA standard covering SARS-CoV-2 exposure, some OSHA requirements may apply to preventing occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2,” specifically, OSHA’s regulations regarding provision of personal protective equipment (“PPE”) [ 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I], respirator use [29 CFR 1910.134], and the all-encompassing General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, which requires employers to provide each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1). (p.17) OSHA also suggests that the bloodborne pathogen standard [29 CFR 1910.1030] offers a framework for controlling exposures to respiratory secretions that may contain the virus.

In the Guidance, OSHA divides job tasks into exposure levels of “very high, high, medium, and lower risk” and then recommends steps employers should consider taking to protect workers in each risk category, using its “hierarchy of controls” framework for addressing workplace risks, i.e., engineering controls, followed by administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE. (pp. 18-25) OSHA’s analysis is summarized below:

  • Very High Risk Workers: Workers in the health care and related professions (including autopsy and mortuary workers) performing aerosol-generating procedures on known or suspected COVID-19 patients or handling specimens or body parts from such patients.
    • Engineering Controls: Install and maintain air-handling systems in healthcare facilities; patients with suspected or known COVID-19 should be placed in airborne infection isolation rooms, “if available;” aerosol-generating procedures should occur only in isolation rooms; use Biosafety Level 3 precautions for handling specimens.
    • Administrative Controls: Follow all healthcare facility guidelines and standards for identifying and isolating infected individuals and protecting workers; “consider” offering enhanced medical monitoring of workers; train workers on preventing transmission; ensure psychological and behavioral support for employee stress. Safe
    • Work Practices: Provide emergency responders and others working outside of fixed healthcare facilities with hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol. PPE: Provide respirators for those working within 6 feet of potential or known infected patients; PPE ensemble including gowns, fluid-resistant coveralls, aprons and other protective clothing; proper disposal of PPE, including training of those involved in disposal.
  • High Risk Workers: Other health care and mortuary workers who are exposed to known or suspected COVID-19 patients, but not those exposed to aerosol-generating procedures.
    • Engineering and administrative controls, safe practices, and PPE: Same as for Very High Risk Workers, adjusted based on somewhat lower risk.
  • Medium Risk Workers: Workers whose job requires frequent and/or close contact within 6 feet of those who may be infected with the virus, but are not known to have contracted COVID-19. “Medium risk” classification applies to those who work with the general public in communities with “ongoing community transmission,” such as in schools and “some high-volume retail settings.”
    • Engineering Controls: Physical barriers, such as sneeze guards, “where feasible.”
    • Administrative Controls: “Consider” offering facemask to ill employees and customers until they can leave the workplace; inform customers of COVID-19 symptoms; “where appropriate,” limit customer and public access to workplace areas; communicate availability of medical resources.
    • PPE: May need combination of gloves, own, face mask, face shield/goggles, depending on work tasks, hazard assessment, and types of exposures; need for respirator would be “rare.”
  • Lower Risk Workers: Workers whose jobs do not require frequent contact with the public and other coworkers.
    • Engineering Controls: None additional.
    • Administrative Controls: Monitor public health communications, including CDC’s website, and work with workers on effective communications.
    • PPE: None additional.

In addition to the steps above, OSHA’s Guidance provides “Steps All Employers Can Take to Reduce Workers’ Risk of Exposure to SARS-CoV-2.” (pp. 7-17) While not requiring employers take these measures, the Guidance states that “[a]s appropriate,” employers should implement “good hygiene and infection control practices”; “explore whether” employers can establish practices including physical and social distancing, and have cleaning equipment and chemicals that are EPA-approved for addressing viruses. (pp. 8-9) OSHA also states that employers should develop policies and procedures for “prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate.” (p.9) OSHA also encourages employers to “develop, implement and communicate about workplace flexibilities and protections” with the principal goal of allowing sick workers or those with illness in families to stay home. (p.11)

With respect to employers with workers working abroad, the Guidance advises that employers keep abreast of CDC and State Department announcements, tell workers that the State Department will not provide medications or supplies to Americans abroad, and be aware that travel in and out of a foreign country may be limited. (pp. 25-26) (The Guidance was issued before the President announced his ban of travel from Europe on March 11.)

Further and updated information about OSHA’s response and guidance about COVID-19 can be found at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/. California-OSHA also has published extensive “Guidance on Requirements to Protect Workers from Coronavirus.”


Exploring the E-Suite with Elizabeth Anderson, Ph.D., Fellow ATS, Chief Science Officer and Senior Fellow, Exponent, Inc.; formerly, Carcinogen Assessment Group and Office of Health and Environmental Assessment, U.S. EPA

Exploring The E-Suite@2x-100

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Exploring the E-Suite with Elizabeth Anderson, Ph.D., Fellow ATS, Chief Science Officer and Senior Fellow, Exponent, Inc.; formerly, Carcinogen Assessment Group and Office of Health and Environmental Assessment, U.S. EPA

  1. I understand that you worked for U.S. EPA when it was first started as a federal agency in the early 1970s. What was your role at the “new” U.S. EPA?

I led the health sciences assessment work for the first 14 years after U.S. EPA was formed in December 1970. At the time, U.S. EPA was a very small agency. I was the only health scientist in an eight-person Office of Technical Analysis, reporting directly to U.S. EPA’s first Administrator, Bill Ruckelshaus. He is an extraordinary person—a terrific and committed leader, who also knew how to make hard work fun. The Administrator asked me to lead an intra-agency committee to write a cancer policy to address the zero risk tolerance expectation for substances with some evidence, often conflicting, of carcinogenicity, as indicated by tumors in animals or humans. Another challenge was that substances could be ubiquitous or important to our society. We knew a “zero tolerance” policy for all possible carcinogens would be unworkable, so my committee reported out a process rather than a cancer policy. That process was the first use of risk assessment to organize what is known and unknown about the likelihood that exposure to a particular agent might cause illness. On the assumption the agent might cause illness, the next step is to define what levels of risk and exposure would be acceptable and protective of public health. The concept of risk acceptance was novel at the time and was introduced in a social and political climate aimed at seeking the ideal, i.e., zero risk.

My office at U.S. EPA conducted and I co-authored more than 150 risk assessments between 1976 and 1983 as a basis for defining major regulatory policy. The National Academy of Sciences published its endorsement of this risk assessment process in 1983. The Academy’s report, referred to as “The Red Book,” inspired national and international adoption of the U.S. EPA’s approach to risk assessment started by my intra-agency committee. I led the effort to expand the health assessment program, which resulted in establishing the central risk assessment office for the Agency—the Office of Health and Environmental Assessment. This office reported directly to the Administrator, who granted us wide latitude to expeditiously conduct our assessments.

  1. What was your professional and academic background leading to your involvement in health risk assessment?

My academic background is in synthetic organic chemistry, the chemistry of making organic molecules, amongst other applications, to be biologically active. I was pre-med at the College of William and Mary, but I was strongly discouraged from pursuing medical school “because I would be taking the place of a man” (a quote from the Chairman of the Chemistry Department). Instead, I was granted a fellowship at the University of Virginia to pursue a master’s degree in synthetic organic chemistry. Next, I applied for a unique fellowship being granted by the U.S. Department of Defense and completed my Ph.D. work in synthetic organic chemistry. During those early years of U.S. EPA, my degree and training best fit the Agency’s needs. There were no degrees in toxicology, relevant applications in epidemiology were just emerging, and mechanism of action had received little attention. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

  1. What was it like to be part of the start of a new federal agency?

Most of all, it was challenging. Following the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and 20 million people marching on the first Earth Day, the spirit of the time was that significant change can happen; every move at EPA was front-page news. We all felt a sense of urgency to make a difference and establish scientific credibility for all decisions that the Agency had to make. U.S. EPA inherited a rapidly cascading series of enabling legislation starting with the Clean Air Act in December of 1970, followed by amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; Radiation Authorities; the Drinking Water Act; “Superfund” (CERCLA); and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). All compelled the Agency to be protective of public health. Implementing this Congressional directive was left to the Agency and, for our part, this meant meeting strict deadlines and establishing scientific foundations that defined protection and that could survive challenges from Congress and the scientific, private, public, and legal communities.

At a very young age, many of us at U.S. EPA inherited a great deal of responsibility. New areas of complexity seemed to develop on a daily basis. Looking back, a culture of committed, young professionals worked hard and achieved a great deal. We were inspired by the excitement and challenge of those times. Many of us have remained friends and colleagues until the present day. Some of us are still involved, as board members of the U.S. EPA Alumni Association.

  1. What were some of the accomplishments of which you were most proud that came out of your work for U.S. EPA?

I am proud of many things, but I am most proud of my role in co-authoring the first guidelines to establish risk assessment and risk management as the basis for setting public policy to protect public health and having the opportunity to found and direct U.S. EPA’s first health assessment offices, the Carcinogen Assessment Group, and the expanded Office of Health Environmental Assessment. In addition, I had the opportunity to found and direct the Agency’s expansion of health topics to include reproductive risk assessment, mutagen risk assessment, and exposure assessment groups; these offices conducted all risk assessments for the Agency’s program offices for many years.

I was fortunate to be a part of establishing the scholarship in this rapidly developing and complex field of health risk assessment. A small number of us founded the Society for Risk Analysis, a focal point for sharing scientific developments from all sectors, including engineering and the social sciences. I served as one of the early Presidents and, for 10 years, was Editor-in-Chief of the Society’s flagship journal, Risk Analysis: An International Journal. In addition, as U.S. EPA’s representative, I had the privilege of participating in the worldwide application of risk assessment first in Europe through the World Health Organization and subsequently through the Pan American Health Organization and other organizations.

  1. After you left U.S. EPA, you have had several professional engagements. Can you summarize those for us?

After spending 14 years being a part of U.S. EPA’s founding, I entered the private sector, initially as President and CEO of the first private health and environmental assessment consulting firm, Clement Associates. In addition to work for private clients, U.S. EPA contracted with me to oversee and direct the first risk assessments for all of its Superfund sites, as did the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to direct and write the first Toxicity Profiles. Later, I founded my own company, Sciences International, and directed it for 13 years, during which we addressed a wide variety of interesting and challenging issues. Subsequently, Exponent asked me to serve as Vice President for Health Sciences, a post I served in for 10 years, then as Chief Science Officer. More recently, I am honored to accept the Exponent designation of Senior Fellow, a rare recognition by the Company. Presently, I continue my work in the field of health risk assessment. I know that the framework and process we created in the early years made it possible to identify gaps in knowledge and point to ways for improving the foundations for health risk assessment.

  1. What are the emerging policy issues in the area of human health risk assessment?

Without a doubt, the need to sensibly apply the science we know to separate the important from the unimportant issues. Often, I feel that we lose sight of the fact that health risk assessment has achieved endorsement worldwide as the premier way to address the complexity of issues involved in defining public health protection. Also, the outcomes of risk assessment now have challenging new applications, e.g., in toxic tort litigation or world trade decisions.

In the policy area, one important emerging issue is the use of health risk assessment to “prove safety.” Adopting ever-diminishing levels of possible protection to achieve this goal effectively creates a “zero tolerance” policy, the very policy that would have defeated U.S. EPA at its inception. I believe that little is gained by these controversial policies that create debate for years; under these approaches we can lose sight of what is important. For example, important EPA risk assessment documents may now take years to become final because of endless debates in areas of scientific uncertainty where societal impacts can be enormous but risk reduction uncertain and marginal. We accept risk in every other part of our society, so it is unrealistic to apply a zero-risk policy to our environmental decisions.

Secondly, I feel that it is most unfortunate that the sciences so essential to public health understanding are often caught in agendas that constrain even the most objective review and use of our public health documents. There is no question that science has become politicized. I contend that U.S. EPA would have been lost without access to all scientists of importance to our decisions, regardless of who had funded their work.

Finally, I see an increasing lack of understanding of the difference between science as applied to public health protection—to preempt and prevent disease—and the science of establishing causality. It is critical to use honest science, regardless of the setting, to avoid mistakes. Distortion of scientific foundations and fact to achieve economic or political gain is deplorable and should be rejected.

  1. What do you enjoy most about your work in the field of human health risk assessment?

The endless challenges. Risk assessment demands that we honestly express what is known and unknown. Exploring the unknowns and narrowing our knowledge gaps are endlessly rewarding endeavors.

  1. What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your work?

It is very difficult to find a single answer to this question. Exploring new science will always be at the top of the list. The greatest non-scientific challenge is the fact that not all are in engaged in finding the truth. Trying to explain the known scientific facts in situations involving exploitation of scientific unknowns or distortion, whether in the courtroom or as a part of political debate, is challenging. The climate created by the spirit of the ’60s was to seek the truth. We were all essentially on the same page; we shared common goals even as we debated the best methods of scientific approach. Today, goals often do not converge; science in the age of polarization is challenging.

  1. What or who helped you succeed as a leader in the area of human health risk assessment?

I have been surrounded by thought leaders and gifted people throughout my career. The environmental movement attracted so many to the new U.S. EPA. One who contributed so much to my understanding was Dr. Roy Albert, the Deputy Director of the School of Environmental Medicine at NYU. He was blessed with an extraordinary intellect and excellent sense of balance. He was the outside Chair of our Carcinogen Assessment Group in the early years, a role that would not be possible in the bureaucracy today. And I must continue to give credit to U.S. EPA Administrator Ruckelshaus.

  1. What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in your field?

Follow your dreams. Work is never work if you feel passionate about what you are doing. Achieve the best education you can get and keep your options open. You may need to help create your own opportunity. Have confidence in your capabilities to achieve your goals and set high ones.

Dr. Anderson was interviewed by Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice, Jenner & BlockSigel_Gabrielle_COLOR

Exploring the E-Suite with Joel Brammeier, President and CEO, Alliance for the Great Lakes

Exploring The E-Suite@2x-100

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Exploring the E-Suite with Joel Brammeier, President and CEO, Alliance for the Great Lakes 

  1. Tell us about Alliance for Great Lakes, including what the organization does and your role.

The Alliance drives the local, state and federal policy reforms and implementation necessary to create a healthy Great Lakes for all people and wildlife, forever. We do this by communicating our thought leadership on issues, building powerful networks of influencers, and educating and activating tens of thousands of volunteers, advocates and donors each year who bring their voices to our priorities.

As President and CEO of the Alliance, I concentrate on three principal responsibilities. The first is making sure that the Alliance is focused on the most significant issues affecting clean water in the Great Lakes. That involves a lot of listening, reading, and prioritizing our work.  Second, I focus on the financial viability of the Alliance.  Fundraising is  is my time to listen to what is important to our supporters and communicate to them   how their investment in clean water is impacting the Great Lakes.  Finally, I work to support the core components of the Alliance—our staff, our volunteers, and the Board of Directors. Everyone needs to be fully engaged, informed, and moving forward to advance the Alliance’s mission.

  1. What is your professional background that you led you to become involved in policy issues concerning protection of fresh water assets and related environmental issues?

After undergrad at Valparaiso University and grad school at University of Michigan, I moved to Chicago in the late 1990s to follow the person who eventually became my spouse. At that time, I began volunteering with a number of NGOs in the Chicago area in order to build my network of relationships and assess how I could become professionally involved. I carried a deep values commitment to non-profit service, mostly due to observing the work of my parents as a teacher and member of the clergy. I had decided on focusing on environmental work in high school after a variety of positive outdoor experiences with my family. After about a year volunteering in various capacities in Chicago, an entry-level position opened up with a group called the Lake Michigan Federation. The combination of my personal value for the Great Lakes that was imprinted on me in childhood, along with my expertise from my education and volunteering, was enough to get me the job. Since that time, I have advanced through the growth and expansion of the organization to become the president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

  1. What do you think are the emerging policy issues regarding fresh water assets and the environment of the Great Lakes and how do you think they should be addressed?

It is still all about clean water, but in a much more inclusive and equitable way than is traditional for the mainstream environmental movement. The greatest emerging challenge is how to ensure Great Lakes water is protected and restored in a way that matters personally to all the people of the Great Lakes. For example, drinking water protection is commonly a top reason the public cites as a reason to protect the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Water Resources Compact & Agreement is a monumental agreement among the states and provinces to ensure water is not diverted to far-flung locations, and that the natural hydrology of the lakes is protected. But this policy doesn’t ensure people can actually access safe, clean and affordable drinking water. It is not credible to say a large natural source of drinking water is truly protected if millions of people who rely on that water cannot safely or reliably use it. And this is today’s unfortunate reality, from manure contamination in northeast Wisconsin, to toxic algae in Lake Erie, to lead and PFAS contamination across the region. Often those harms are falling on people who are already suffering an outsize burden in other parts of their lives.

On specific issues, I think the greatest challenges are 1) changing how we grow food so the agricultural economy does not pollute our water 2) restoring the vital water infrastructure that is the basis of people’s health and the Great Lakes regional economy and 3) preventing the continued influx of invasive species that threaten to torpedo our way of life. Solving these challenges depends on a broad and engaged public that is motivated to action to protect the Great Lakes.  

  1. What do you enjoy most about your work at the Alliance for the Great Lakes?

The people I work with, the ability to protect something that is personally important to me and the fact that clean water for all people and wildlife is a hard cause to argue against.

  1. What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your work?

Environmental advocacy works on big problems with many deeply embedded interests and motivations. Changing that system takes time and can be frustrating. The flip side of that is when you are successful, you are changing a system in a lasting way and you know it will benefit people now and well into the future.

  1. What or who helped you succeed as a policy maker and advocate?

I’m not the kind of person who needs or wants to be in the spotlight taking credit, I just want to work smart and get the result I’m looking for. I’ve relied on so many people because this work is by nature collaborative and I would miss many if I named names. But I will mention one. Cameron Davis, who is now a commissioner at Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, gave me my first real shot at being an environmental professional. I’m sure I screwed up plenty while working for him, but he still let me follow him around and listen to him for years. This was fundamental to me learning how environmental policy change happens. I’m truly thankful for that time. I’ve had five Board of Directors chairs in my time leading the Alliance, without whom I never would have been able to figure out how to run an organization. School does not train you for that and board leadership is vital. The Alliance is fortunate to have a large and diverse base of financial supporters, and I reflect constantly on my obligation to them to make sure our work is addressing their desire for clean and safe water.

  1. Describe those projects as an environmental policy advocate of which you are the proudest.

I’ve done some transformative work in invasive species prevention where I can look back at policies and decisions by elected officials and know that I was one of the people at the center of making those things happen. If you get to be part of one thing like that in a lifetime, it’s pretty great. I’ve been a core part of, though definitely not the leader, of a successful movement to make the Great Lakes a national priority in the United States. I’m also quite proud of dramatically expanding the reach of my organization and becoming a leader in engaging people in advocacy, as public support is critical for success.

  1. What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in your field?

Looking back, I realize today that I received a  privileged opportunity when I joined the Lake Michigan Federation. It was a relatively small group rebounding from a tough time in the right way, and I was fortunate to get that job. Today, the green & blue movement is pervasive in our economy and culture in a way that just did not exist twenty years ago. Young professionals can and should seek out careers with environmental organizations, but also remember that there are opportunities to shape systems change throughout the private sector. They should ask their future bosses to communicate their personal vision for change. Look for somewhere in your work where you can take the lead on at least one thing that is important to you and your career. Listen to understand how environmental choices affect the daily lives of people and build your work around that knowledge. And consider spending some time in politics early on – understanding what motivates our decision makers is absolutely critical to devising strategies to make sure the right decisions are made.

Mr. Brammeier was interviewed by Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice, Jenner & BlockSigel_Gabrielle_COLOR

OSHRC Rules No General Duty Clause Hazard Or Feasible Abatement For Heat Exposure

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By Gabrielle Sigel

In a 2-1 decision on February 28, 2019, the full Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (“OSHRC”) vacated the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (“OSHA”) citation charging a roofing contractor with a “general duty clause” violation for exposing employees “to the hazard of excessive heat from working on a commercial roof in the direct sun” and separately vacated a citation for failure to train employees regarding heat-related risks.  Sec’y of Labor v. A.H. Sturgill Roofing, Inc., OSHRC Docket No. 13-0224.  OSHA had issued the citations following the physical collapse and subsequent death of a temporary worker on the first day of his work for the roofing company.

Different from a violation based on an OSHA regulation, a general duty clause violation alleges that the employer has violated the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act’s provision stating:  “Each employer … shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”  29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1).

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