By Vanessa Orr
Each day there is more breaking news on the COVID front, and with the release of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s
(OSHA) new guidelines for the healthcare industry on June 21, 2021, it’s important that those working in hospitals, medical practices, long-term care facilities and other healthcare operations be made aware of these changes.
According to Medical Malpractice and Workers Compensation Specialist Tom Murphy at Danna-Gracey, the largest independent medical malpractice insurance agency in Florida, OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) has 15 key requirements designed to help employers use multiple overlapping controls in a layered approach to protect workers. Though a number of labor groups have recommended that these same requirements be extended to those in other high-risk employment fields such as manufacturing and retail, the current ETS only applies to the healthcare industry.
One of the requirements of the updated ETS is that healthcare facilities with 10 or more employees must conduct a hazard assessment and create a safety plan in writing.
“Employers are required to assess the risk in their healthcare facilities for COVID and to create a safety plan that spells out what steps they’ll take to counter any exposure or risk,” said Murphy.
“The ETS sets forth rules for when to require masking, distancing and physical barrier requirements, and also addresses other personal protection equipment (PPE), health screenings, ventilation, employee training, vaccinations, record-keeping and paying quarantined employees.”
The new regulations require employers to provide workers with paid time off to get vaccinated as well as time to recover from any vaccine side effects. Covered employees who have COVID must work remotely or be separated from other workers or be given paid time off up to $1,400 per week.
In addition to brick-and-mortar locations, the standards also apply to employees who work in ambulatory care settings and to emergency responders who treat suspected or confirmed coronavirus patients.
While the new regulations may seem onerous to employers suffering from shifting COVID rules, there is a bright side. “One of the benefits of this is that most healthcare practices with less than 500 employees can expect to receive tax credits from the American Rescue Plan,” said Murphy, adding that OSHA expects the ETS to protect roughly 10 million healthcare workers.
Vaccinated or Unvaccinated?
While the ETS does provide for some exemptions from the guidelines for fully vaccinated employees, as COVID continues to spread, these exceptions may change as well.
“Before the Delta variant started spreading, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) was saying that if people were vaccinated, they could go anywhere without a mask,” said Murphy. “But because COVID cases are increasing, they are now recommending that vaccinated people in enclosed places like restaurants and bars should wear masks. These guidelines may continue to change as new variations appear.”
The ETS does include guidance for working with unvaccinated employees in high-risk settings, including the use of physical
barriers and working off-hours.
In terms of compliance, Murphy said that any healthcare employers who have not yet followed the new ETS regulations are out of compliance, which could put their businesses at risk.
“Anybody in a healthcare management position needs to continually monitor the OSHA website and the ETS guidelines,” he said, warning of upcoming fines and penalties for noncompliance. “Right now, OSHA is trying to get people aware of the new guidelines and get them motivated to do what they need to do, but the website also says that the Department of Labor is in the process of determining what kinds of fines and penalties will be assessed. Any employee could go online to see what is required, and if their company is not complying, report them to OSHA.”
He adds that things may continue to change over the next days or weeks, which is why it’s important to remain vigilant.
“These rules are a moving target because of what’s going on with the Delta variant, so healthcare leaders have to stay up-to-date on the latest changes,” he said.