Jenner & Block Wishes Bon Voyage to Gay Sigel as She Starts Her Next Adventure with the City of Chicago
As Gay Sigel walked through the doors at One IBM Plaza in Chicago, fresh out of law school and ready to launch her career as an attorney at Jenner & Block, she could not have envisioned the tremendous impact she would have on her clients, her colleagues, and her community over the next 39 years. Gay started her legal career as a general litigator, but Gay and Bob Graham were quick to realize how the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was creating a new and exciting area of the law that was increasingly important for the firm’s clients: Environmental Law. Gay and Bob saw an opportunity to specialize in that area and founded Jenner & Block’s Environmental Health and Safety Practice. Gay has been an ever-present force in the EHS community ever since.
Over her 39-year career at Jenner & Block, Gay has worked on some of the most significant environmental cases in the country for clients ranging from global Fortune 50 corporations to environmental organizations to individuals. For more than a decade, she taught environmental law at Northwestern University, helping shape the next generation of environmental lawyers. She has worked on issues of global impact, like those affecting climate change, issues of local impact like those related to combined sewer overflows to the Chicago River, and issues of individual impact like those involving employee safety and health. No matter the subject, Gay has always been a tireless advocate for her clients. We often describe her as the Energizer Bunny of environmental lawyers: she is the hardest working attorney we have ever met.
Gay’s true passion is to make this world a better, more just place for others. So, throughout her career as an environmental, health, and safety lawyer, Gay has devoted her time, energy, and emotional resources to innumerable pro bono cases and charitable and advocacy organizations. Her pro bono work includes successfully protecting asylum applicants, defending criminal cases, asserting parental rights, and defending arts organizations in OSHA matters. Among her many civic endeavors, Gay was a founding member of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago (n/k/a as the Legal Council for Health Justice); she was the Secretary and active member of the Board of Directors for the Chicago Foundation for Women; and she was on the Board of the New Israel Fund. Gay continues to promote justice wherever she sees injustice, including as an advocate for women’s rights, particularly for women’s reproductive rights.
In both her environmental, health, and safety practice as well as her pro bono and charitable work, Gay is a tremendous mentor to younger (and even older) attorneys. She is curious, committed, exacting, fearless, and demanding (though more of herself than of others). We all give Gay much credit for making us the lawyers we are today.
Gay is leaving Jenner & Block to embark on her next adventure. She is returning to public service as Corporate Environmental Counsel for the City of Chicago. The City and its residents will be well served as Gay will bring her vast experience and unparalleled energy to work tirelessly to protect the City and its environment. We will miss working with and learning from Gay on a daily basis, but we look forward to seeing the great things she will accomplish for the City of Chicago. We know we speak for the entire firm as we wish Gay bon voyage—we will miss you!
Steven M. Siros, Allison A. Torrence, Andi S. Kenney
West Virginia v. EPA: The Major Questions Doctrine Arrives to Rein in Administrative Powers
By Allison A. Torrence and Tatjana Vujic
On the final day of its 2022 term, the Supreme Court issued its highly-anticipated opinion in the case of West Virginia v. EPA, 579 U.S. __ (2022), addressing EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) under the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), but having much broader implications for the authority of all administrative agencies. The opinion signals a significant shift in the standards used to review administrative actions. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion for the Court, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett. Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Alito joined, and Justice Kagan filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Breyer and Sotomayor joined.
Major Questions Doctrine Has its Day in the Sun
In a significant yet long-predicted move, the six-to-three opinion rejected EPA’s approach to regulating GHG emissions under the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (“CPP”), under which EPA intended to regulate existing coal-and natural-gas-fired power plants pursuant to Section 111(d) of the CAA. Of greater significance, however, the Court took the opportunity to fully embrace the “major questions doctrine,” a standard several Justices had endorsed but which had not yet been fully unveiled by the Court. The doctrine now requires agencies, in instances in which a regulation will have major economic and political consequences, to point to clear statutory language showing congressional authorization for the power claimed by the agency. In particular, in “extraordinary cases” in which “the history and the breadth of the authority that the agency has asserted and the economic and political significance of that assertion” is significant or major, courts have “a reason to hesitate before concluding that Congress meant to confer such authority.” Slip op. at 17. In such extraordinary cases, the Court will not read into ambiguous statutory text authority that is not clearly spelled out. Instead, “something more than a merely plausible textual basis for the agency action is necessary”; specifically, “[t]he agency instead must point to clear congressional authorization for the power it claims.” Slip op. at 19.
As support for the adoption and application of the major questions doctrine, the Court cited numerous cases in which agency authority was curtailed because of extraordinary circumstances that it determined required a clear congressional directive. The cases included the FDA’s attempt to regulate tobacco (FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 529 U.S. 120 (2000), the CDC’s effort to issue an eviction moratorium during the COVID-19 pandemic (Alabama Assn. of Realtors v. Dept. of Health & Human Servs., 594 U.S. __ (2021)), EPA’s assertion of permitting authority over millions of small sources like hotels and office buildings (Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, 573 U.S. 302 (2014)), and OSHA’s endeavor to require 84 million Americans either obtain a COVID-19 vaccine or undergo weekly testing (National Federation of Independent Business v. OSHA, 595 U.S. __ (2021)), all of which, according to the Court, involved an agency overstepping its authority to act in situations not dissimilar from the extraordinary circumstances presented in West Virginia v. EPA. The dissent, on the other hand, regarded the majority’s use of the major questions doctrine to be without precedent, observing that “[t]he Court has never even used the term ‘major questions doctrine’ before.” Dissent at 15.
As discussed below, when the Court determines that the major questions doctrine applies, even if the administrative action arguably fits within what may seem like a broad grant of statutory authority, it is not necessarily enough to authorize the agency to act. Rather, if the court finds that the administrative rule is an “extraordinary case”, i.e., will have a significant economic or political impact, the agency must base its action on very clear congressional authorization to justify the power it is attempting to assert.
Clean Power Plan is Out But Regulating GHGs Still OK
Turning back to the regulation at issue in West Virginia, the Court reviewed the Clean Power Plan, which dates back to the Obama Administration’s EPA. At that time, EPA promulgated the CPP pursuant to its authority under the New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) in Section 111(d) of the CAA. The Court’s review thus centered on Section 111(d), which gives EPA authority to select the “best system of emission reduction” for existing sources of pollution, like power plants. 42 U.S.C. § 7411(d). Under the CPP, the Obama Administration’s EPA used the NSPS to set GHG emission standards for existing power plants which would require many operators to shut down older coal-fired units and/or shift generation to lower-emitting natural gas units or renewable sources of electricity. The Court viewed EPA’s CPP, which would have required power producers to significantly change the generation mix, as an “extraordinary case” because it would have a major impact on the economy and was a “transformative expansion in [EPA’s] regulatory authority” based on “vague language” in the CAA. Slip op. at 20. In addition, the Court noted that EPA was using an “ancillary provision” in the CAA to regulate GHGs and stated that “the Agency’s discovery [of Section 111(d)]”—which the Court described as a “gap filler”—"allowed it to adopt a regulatory program that Congress had conspicuously and repeatedly declined to enact itself.” Slip op. at 20.
Best System of Emission Reduction
Notably, the Court acknowledged that “as a matter of definitional possibilities, generation shifting can be described as a system” (and thus a “best system of emission reduction”), but nevertheless determined that the CAA’s grant of authority was too vague. Slip op. at 28. According to the Court, almost anything could be described as a “system”, and therefore the CPP was based on a vague grant of authority and did not pass the major questions doctrine test. Slip op. at 28. The majority found such a broad grant of authority questionable, particularly because climate change legislation has been debated in Congress for years with no action, signaling that EPA could not exercise such broad authority when Congress had clearly declined to take such action itself.
By contrast and contrary to the majority’s narrow reading of “best system of emission reduction,” the dissent argued that the generation shifting prescribed by the CPP was precisely the type of “system” of emission reduction permitted under the CAA. In particular, the dissent contended that the term “system” is not vague (which Justice Kagan defined as unclear, ambiguous or hazy) but intentionally expansive to allow for such system-wide programs. Thus, the crux of the disagreement between the majority and dissent is that the dissent saw the CAA as having bestowed broad authority on EPA to regulate complex and important issues of air pollution—including and especially climate change, particularly considering the severity of the problem—in the manner that EPA determines is most appropriate, while the majority required further scrutiny for large-scale administrative endeavors like the CPP, which it held require very clear and specific authorization.
In terms of the implications of West Virginia, what is clear is that the major questions doctrine is here to stay and EPA’s ability to regulate GHG’s under Section 111(d) of the CAA may be curtailed but has not been rejected. In fact, the Court specifically endorsed EPA’s authority to regulate GHGs. So, what does this mean, not only for GHG regulation but also for agency rulemaking in general?
First, while the ruling marks a significant setback for EPA, it does not shut the door on the agency’s ability to regulate GHGs. The CPP rules at issue raised the specter of the major questions doctrine because the regulation would have required generation shifting across the entire energy industry—an action viewed by the Court as having a significant impact on the national economy. The Court, however, declined to opine on “how far our opinion constrains EPA,” indicating that EPA’s authority had not been disallowed. Slip op. at 31, fn5. In fact, the opinion unequivocally states that it is within EPA’s purview to set a specific limit on GHG emissions. Slip op. at 6 (“Although the States set the actual rules governing existing power plants, EPA itself still retains the primary regulatory role in Section 111(d). The Agency, not the States, decides the amount of pollution reduction that must ultimately be achieved.”) Nothing in the opinion suggests that EPA cannot choose to regulate GHGs at power plants with more traditional technology-based requirements. Indeed, an inside-the-fence-line regulation that requires technology like carbon-capture would likely be within EPA’s traditional expertise and less likely to implicate large swaths of the economy like generation switching, and hence not be struck down.
Looking beyond EPA and GHG regulation, additional fallout from the Court’s embrace of the major questions doctrine is sure to occur. In addition to the Court’s explicit adoption of the major questions doctrine, Justice Gorsuch—a longstanding proponent of the doctrine—used his concurring opinion to lay out what he saw as the appropriate elements to consider when evaluating administrative rules under the doctrine. While Justice Gorsuch’s concurrence is not binding, future courts and administrative agencies likely will look to both the Court’s majority opinion and the Gorsuch concurrence for guidance. Administrative regulations will face increased challenges and heightened judicial scrutiny thanks to the major questions doctrine, and we can expect to see not only the number of challenges increase but also the number of successful challenges rise. Additionally, administrative agencies may proactively rein in regulatory actions they were planning to promulgate—keeping the rules more modest or tailored in an attempt to avoid challenges based on the major questions doctrine.
Undoubtedly, this will not be the last word on EPA regulation of GHGs or the use of the major questions doctrine. EPA will issue new GHG regulations, which certainly will invite future litigation. The decision will also certainly trigger many more challenges of agency authority under the newly minted major questions doctrine.
 Notably, the CPP was revoked by the Trump EPA, and the Biden EPA has stated that it intends to promulgate new GHG regulations different from the previous rules under past administrations. Nevertheless, the Court held that the parties had standing to proceed and the case was not moot. Slip op. at 14, 16.
Earth Week Series: The Future of Environmental Regulation
By Allison A. Torrence
As we near Earth Day 2022, the United States may be headed toward a profound change in the way EPA and similar administrative agencies regulate the complex areas of environmental law. EPA began operating more than 50 years ago in 1970, and has been tasked with promulgating and enforcing some of the most complex regulations on the books. From the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act; to CERCLA and RCRA and TSCA; and everything in between.
EPA has penned voluminous regulations over the past 50 years to implement vital environmental policies handed down from Congress—to remarkable effect. While there is certainly progress left to be done, improvements in air and water quality in the United States, along with hazardous waste management, has been impressive. For example, according to EPA data, from 1970 to 2020, a period in which gross domestic product rose 272% and US population rose 61%, aggregate emissions of the six criteria pollutants decreased by 78%.
For the past 50 years the environmental administrative law process has worked mostly the same way: First, Congress passes a law covering a certain environmental subject matter (e.g., water quality), which provides policy objectives and a framework of restrictions, prohibitions and affirmative obligations. Second, EPA, the administrative agency tasked with implementing the environmental law, promulgates detailed regulations defining terms used in the law and explaining in a more comprehensive fashion how to comply with the obligations outlined in the statute. Depending on the subject matter being addressed, Congress may leave more details up to EPA, as the subject matter expert, to fill in via regulation. In some instances, there is a third step, where additional authority is delegated to the states and tribes to implement environmental regulations at the state-level based on the framework established by Congress and EPA. Occasionally someone thinks EPA overstepped its authority under a given statute, or failed to act when it was supposed to, and litigation follows to correct the over or under action.
Currently, this system of administrative law is facing challenges from parties that believe administrative agencies like EPA have moved from implementing Congress’s policy to setting their own. The most significant such challenge has come in the consolidated Clean Air Act (“CAA”) cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, West Virginia v. EPA, Nos. 20-1530, 20-1531, 20-1778, 20-1780. In West Virginia v. EPA, challengers object to the Obama-EPA’s Clean Power Plan (“CPP”), which used a provision in the New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) section of the CAA to set greenhouse gas emission standards for existing power plants. The biggest issue with the CPP, according to challengers, is that the new standards would require many operators to shut down older coal-fired units and shift generation to lower-emitting natural gas or renewable units. Challengers, which include several states, power companies and coal companies, argue the CPP implicates the “major questions doctrine” or “non-delegation doctrine”. These doctrines provide that large-scale initiatives that have broad impacts can't be based on vague, minor, or obscure provisions of law. Challengers argue that the NSPS provision used as the basis for the CPP is a minor provision of law that is being used by EPA to create a large-scale shift in energy policy. EPA argues that, although it is currently revising its greenhouse gas regulations, the actions taken in the CPP were authorized by Congress in the CAA, are consistent with with the text of the CAA as written, and do not raise the specter of the major questions or non-delegations doctrines.
While this case will certainly dictate how EPA is permitted to regulate greenhouse gases under the CAA, it will likely have broader impacts on administrative law. On the one hand, the Court may issue a narrow opinion that evaluates the CPP based on the regulations being inconsistent with the text or intent of the CAA. On the other hand, the Supreme Court may issue a broader opinion that invokes the major questions or non-delegation doctrines to hold that based on the significant-impacts of the regulation, it is an area that should be governed by Congress, not an administrative agency. If the Supreme Court takes the latter route, it could set more limits on Congress’s ability to delegate regulatory authority to administrative agencies like EPA.
Indeed, in the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the OSHA emergency temporary standard on employer vaccine or test mandate (“the OSHA ETS”), Ohio v. Dept. of Labor, et al., 595 U.S. ____ (2022), the Court struck down an administrative regulation in a preview of what might be coming in the EPA CAA case. As everyone knows by now, the Supreme Court struck down the OSHA ETS, holding it was an overstep of the agency’s authority to regulate safety issues in the workplace. The Court’s opinion focused on the impact of the OSHA ETS—that it will impact 84 million employees and it went beyond the workplace—instead of the statutory language. The Court stated, “[i]t is telling that OSHA, in its half century of existence, has never before adopted a broad public health regulation of this kind—addressing a threat that is untethered, in any causal sense, from the workplace.” Slip op. at 8.
Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch invoked the major questions doctrine in their concurring opinion, stating that Congress must speak clearly if it wishes to delegate to an administrative agency decisions of vast economic and political import. In the case of OSHA and COVID-19, the Justices maintained that Congress did not clearly assign to OSHA the power to deal with COVID-19 because it had not done so over the past two years of the pandemic. Notably, the fact that when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, it authorized OSHA to issue emergency regulations upon determining that “employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful” and “that such emergency standard[s] [are] necessary to protect employees from such danger[s]”, was not a sufficient basis for the Court or the three consenting Justices. In their view, in order to authorize OSHA to issue this vaccine or test mandate, Congress had to do more than delegate to OSHA general emergency powers 50 years ago, but instead would have had to delegate authority specific to the current pandemic.
Applying this logic to EPA and the currently-pending CAA case, Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch may conclude that provisions of the CAA written 50 or 30 years ago, before climate change was fully on Congress’s radar, should not be used to as the basis for regulations that impact important climate and energy policy. Of course, many questions remain: Will a majority of the court adopt this view, and how far they will take it? If Congress can’t delegate climate change and energy policy, what else is off the table—water rights? Hazardous waste? Chemical management? If Congress can’t delegate to EPA and other administrative agencies at the same frequency as in the past, how will Congress manage passing laws dealing with complex and technical areas of law?
All of these questions and more may arise, depending on how the Supreme Court rules in West Virginia v. EPA. For now, we are waiting to see what will happen, in anticipation of some potentially significant changes on the horizon.
 Jenner & Block filed an Amicus Curiae brief in this case on behalf of Former Power Industry Executives in support of EPA.
OSHA’s Healthcare Emergency Temporary Standard Is Promulgated: The Countdown to a Legal Challenge Begins
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
On June 21, 2021, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had its Occupational Exposure to COVID-19, Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) published in the Federal Register, making it immediately effective on that date. 86 FR 32377 (June 21, 2021). OSHA has the authority to issue an ETS, for immediate application upon publication in the Federal Register, without first proceeding through typical notice-and-comment rulemaking, if OSHA “determines” 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 an ETS is “necessary to protect employees from such danger.” 29 USC §655(c)(1).
Any person “adversely affected” by the ETS may raise a legal challenge in the U.S. Court of Appeals of their principal place of business or residence, within 60 days after the ETS’s publication, and the court could then issue a stay of the rule’s implementation. 29 USC §655(f)(1). By statute, the “determinations of [OSHA] shall be conclusive if supported by substantial evidence in the record considered as a whole.” Id. OSHA has not successfully issued an ETS in more than four decades; the open legal issue is whether OSHA’s ETS will survive legal challenge, if any is raised.
Despite its broad title in the Federal Register, the ETS, to be codified at 29 CFR §1910.502, is targeted to specific employment “settings,” i.e., “all settings where any employee provides healthcare services or healthcare support services.” 29 CFR §1910.502(a)(1). OSHA further narrows the scope of the ETS to apply to those employees who are licensed healthcare providers and likely to be involved in the care of people suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 and certain fully vaccinated employees. See generally, id. at §1910.502(a)(2) and the OSHA decision tree “Is Your Workplace Covered by the ETS?” The ETS requires that affected employers (1) have a COVID-19 plan, typically in writing, with a designated person in charge of implementing the plan, and based on a risk assessment, providing policies and procedures for control of COVID-19 transmission; (2) institute patient screening and management; (3) implement policies and procedures for precautions, including regarding PPE, response to aerosol-generating procedures, cleaning/disinfecting, physical distancing, and barriers; (4) ventilation standards; (5) have health screening and paid medical removal of employees after illness and exposure; (6) have paid vaccination leave; (7) provide training and communication, including regarding anti-retaliation protections; (8) institute recordkeeping of all COVID-19 cases, regardless of work-relatedness; and (9) institute a “mini respiratory protection program” when use of respirators are not otherwise required, but the employee or employer chooses to upgrade a facemask to an N95 or similar respirator. Employers must comply with all provisions within 14 days, i.e., by July 5, 2021, except for the provisions regarding physical barriers, training, and ventilation, which have a July 21, 2021 compliance date.
The ETS is accompanied by a preamble of more than 200 pages, much of it devoted to OSHA’s determinations regarding the grave danger and need for the ETS generally and each provision specifically. In the preamble, OSHA recognizes and addresses the most likely legal challenges to the ETS. OSHA begins by framing the ETS as an action which OSHA was required to take, because the OSH Act provides that OSHA “shall provide… for an emergency temporary standard” upon a finding of grave danger and need for the ETS. 29 USC §655(c)(1); 86 FR at 32380.
With respect to the grave danger element, OSHA’s position is that it need only show that the dangers to workers from COVID-19 are “incurable, permanent, or fatal…as opposed to easily curable and fleeting effects on their health.” 86 FR at 23280 quoting Fla. Peach Growers Ass'n, Inc. v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 489 F.2d 120, 132 (5th Cir. 1974). OSHA begins by discussing the nature of the disease, including its health and “other adverse effects”, including “observed disparities in risk based on race and ethnicity,” and continues by addressing the transmission of the virus and the effect of vaccines on OSHA’s determination of grave danger, the effect on healthcare workplaces in particular. 86 FR at 32381, et seq. OSHA finds that “the advent of vaccines does not eliminate the grave danger …in healthcare workplaces where less than 100% of the workforce is fully vaccinated,” due to spread among unvaccinated workers, the risk of breakthrough infection among the vaccinated, and vaccine hesitancy among health care workers. Id. at 32398. OSHA hedges that ‘[i]f and when OSHA finds a grave danger from the virus no longer exists for the covered workforce (or some portion thereof), or new information indicates a change in measures necessary to address the grave danger, OSHA will update the ETS, as appropriate.” Id. at 32399. In the meantime, relying on “CDC guidance and the best available evidence, OSHA finds a grave danger in healthcare for vaccinated and unvaccinated HCP involved in the treatment of COVID-19 patients.” Id.
Reflecting that OSHA’s last attempt at issuing an ETS was rejected by the court for failure to show the necessity of the rule, given already existing OSHA standard, OSHA spent most of the preamble addressing the necessity issue. See Asbestos Info. Ass'n/N. Am. v. OSHA, 727 F.2d 415, 425-26 (5th Cir. 1984). In this case, the necessity element is particularly difficult for OSHA to establish, including because of its own prior response to COVID-19 in the workplace. OSHA notes that since January 2020 and continuing through October 2020, it has received requests for an ETS. However, beginning in May 2020, OSHA rejected those attempts given its existing enforcement tools, including for PPE, respiratory protection, and the General Duty Clause. When sued by the AFL-CIO for failing to issue a COVID-19 ETS for all workers, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that “in light of 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, …OSHA reasonably determined that an ETS is not necessary at this time.” In re Am. Fed'n of Labor & Cong. of Indus. Orgs., No. 20-1158, 2020 WL 3125324 (D.C. Cir., June 11, 2020).
OSHA recognizes that, after it decided against issuing an ETS, some state and local governments issued their own requirements and guidelines, leading to a “patchwork of state and local regulations [providing] inadequate and varying levels of protection for workers across the country, and [causing] problems for many employees and businesses.” Id. at 32413. Thus, OSHA “does not believe its prior approach—enforcement of existing standards and the General Duty Clause coupled with the issuance of nonbinding guidance—has proven over time to be adequate to ‘reduce the risk that workers may contract COVID-19’ in healthcare settings.” Id.
To support this decision, OSHA critiques the inadequacy of several tools it has already used for its COVID-19 enforcement efforts, including its main weapon—the General Duty Clause. See, e.g., id. at 32415, et seq. OSHA finds several weaknesses in the use of the General Duty Clause, including because it imposes a “heavy litigation burden on OSHA.” OSHA would have to prove that the COVID-19 infection hazard was present at the particular workplace that was cited and that each abatement method that OSHA recommends would materially reduce the hazard at that particular workplace. Moreover, OSHA admits that it could not use the General Duty Clause to enforce the ETS’s requirements for paid time for vaccination, its side effects, and medical removal. Id. at 32420. OSHA also notes that an ETS is necessary for it to address willful violations of the law by clarifying “what exactly employers are required to do to protect employees,” implying that the General Duty Clause does not do so. Id. at 32420. OSHA notes that the Clause is further limiting because it would not permit it to cite the employer on a “per-instance basis” for each employee that OSHA determines was not adequately protected. OSHA also critiques the General Duty Clause for its “limited application to multi-employer worksites, like hospitals,” thus giving OSHA the ability to, for example, cite the hospital for exposing a non-employee to a COVID-19 hazard. Id. at 32420-21.
OSHA also critiques the efficacy of its voluntary guidance for protecting workers, including the lack of compliance and the need for a “more consistent national approach,” that “levels the playing field” among all employers. Id. at 32422. OSHA proceeds to show that its previous reasons for rejecting an ETS, issued “at an early phase of the pandemic,” do not preclude OSHA’s action now. The agency agrees with criticism, including that issued by the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General, that “the combination of guidance and General Duty Clause authority has done little to protect employees [and] will not protect employees covered by this ETS….” Id. at 32423. OSHA also rejects that availability of vaccines has made the ETS unnecessary, and finds that “the potential for higher immunity rates later on does not obviate the need to implement the ETS now.” Id. at 32424. OSHA’s position reflects that although the ETS is immediately effective, OSHA must now open a notice-and-comment procedure and either issue a permanent standard according to those methods within 6 months, or the ETS is no longer applicable. 29 USC §655(c)(3).
OSHA’s justification for the ETS is hampered by both a lack of data and evolving data. OSHA admits that it does not have the data to conduct its typical risk assessment, and that it cannot state the number of healthcare workers that have contracted COVID-19. OSHA asserts that such an assessment “is not necessary in this situation” because the
“gravity of the danger presented by a disease with acute effects like COVID-19…is made obvious by a straightforward count of deaths and illnesses….” Id. at 32411. OSHA estimates that the ETS will save 776 lives over the next 6 months, based on a seven-step estimating process, which OSHA also modifies in certain circumstances. 86 FR at 32537.
OSHA also has the data-based challenges of declining infections, hospitalizations, and death; the lack of data that any state-promulgated ETS had any effect on work-related transmission of the virus; declining worker complaints about COVID-19 related hazards; and the paucity of data showing that healthcare workers face greater risks at work than in the community at large. In addition, while declaring that its current enforcement methods are not effective, OSHA has sparse data showing that is the case. The Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General found that it was OSHA’s tepid enforcement in 2020 that led to greater COVID-19 hazards in the workplace, and OSHA’s March 2021 National Emphasis Program addressing COVID-19 has barely gotten off the ground. Moreover, none of the agency’s COVID-19 General Duty clause cases have reached the point of decision by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, which would indicate whether OSHA could effectively rely on the General Duty Clause, including as a deterrent to other employers who have not been cited.
The time clock for a legal challenge to the ETS has started. If challenged, OSHA must show that its preamble provides “substantial evidence” such that “a reasonable mind might accept [it] as adequate to support a conclusion.” American Textile Mfrs. Inst., Inc. v. Donovan, 452 U.S. 490, 522 (1981). As the court noted in Asbestos Info. Ass'n, this standard requires that the court “take a ‘harder look’ at OSHA’s action than we would if we were reviewing the action under the more deferential arbitrary and capricious standard applicable to agencies governed by the Administrative Procedure Act.” 727 F.2d at 421. To protect the ETS from legal challenge, OSHA has included a severability clause in the regulation itself, stating that “each individual section and provision of the ETS can continue to sensibly function in the event that some sections or provisions are invalidated, stayed, or enjoined.” 86 FR at 32617. Whether this COVID-19 Healthcare ETS becomes OSHA’s first emergency rule in more than 40 years is now an active question, including whether there are parties who wish to take the public position of opposing protections for health care workers during a pandemic.
For information or advice on OSHA guidance, standards and enforcement during the pandemic, please contact the author. Additional information regarding working during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found in Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and in the Jenner & Block COVID-19 Resource Center.
OSHA’s Updated COVID-19 Workplace Safety Guidance: Now Employers Have the Hard Part
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
On June 10, 2021, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published its long-awaited response to President’s Biden’s January 21, 2021 Executive Order to OSHA, which had directed the agency to consider and, if necessary, by March 15, 2021, issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) in response to workplace hazards from COVID-19. With the deadline long-passed, interest in OSHA’s approach was heightened when the CDC, on May 13, 2021, issued its Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People (the “May 13 CDC Guidance”), and OSHA posted on its website that it was updating its guidance in response.
As the author predicted, OSHA did not issue a broad COVID-19 ETS applicable to all industries. Instead, on June 10, 2021, OSHA issued two documents: (1) an ETS applicable only to the healthcare industry; and (2) updated guidance applicable to all other industries, implementing the recommendations from the May 13 CDC Guidance. This article addresses only the updated guidance.
The June 10, 2021 OSHA guidance, “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace” (“Updated OSHA Guidance”) replaces guidance of the same name that the agency issued on January 29, 2021. The difference between the two versions of OSHA’s guidance reflects the significant changes that have occurred in disease transmission and workplace risks, due to vaccines and other factors. Because the May 13 CDC Guidance found that most “fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing” in most locations, the Updated OSHA Guidance announced: “Unless otherwise required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their fully vaccinated workers who are not otherwise at-risk from COVID-19 exposure” (emphasis removed). Therefore, the Updated OSHA Guidance “focuses only on protecting unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in their workplaces (or well-defined portions of workplaces).” “At-risk workers” are defined as those (a) whose medical condition are such that they may not “have a full immune response to vaccination,” or (b) who, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, “may be legally entitled to reasonable accommodations that protect them from the risk of contracting COVID-19 if, for example, they cannot be protected through vaccination, cannot get vaccinated, or cannot use face coverings.”
With publication of the Updated OSHA Guidance, the agency clearly is pulling back from regulating COVID-19 in most workplaces, particularly compared to its stance earlier this year. As is typical, OSHA advises that its guidance “is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations.” Also, as typical, the guidance has a subtext that its guidance could be used to establish a recognized hazard and methods of prevention under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause. Yet, by issuing guidance, rather than regulation, OSHA is signaling that its concerns about risks from COVID-19 in most workplaces have significantly decreased since vaccines have become widely available.
In the Updated OSHA Guidance, it advises that both at-risk workers and other unvaccinated workers (collectively, “protected workers”) should be protected from the risks of COVID-19 in the workplace. The Updated OSHA Guidance proceeds to describe control measures that an employer “should take” to protect these workers in all industries except healthcare (who are covered by the new ETS); public transportation (workers are subject to CDC’s transportation-related mask mandate); and schools (which are to follow “applicable,” but unspecified, CDC guidance).
With respect to recommended protections, OSHA provides a two-part approach. Part one describes controls for all workplaces, and part two is an “Appendix” with “Measures Appropriate for Higher Risk Workplaces with Mixed-Vaccination Status Workers.” In part one, OSHA recommends 11 “multi-layered interventions” that “employers should engage with workers and their representatives to determine how to implement” for protected workers:
Grant paid time off for vaccination.
Sick or symptomatic employees, and protected workers who were exposed as “close contacts” should stay home.
Physical distancing in all communal areas, particularly indoors, and use barriers when distancing is not possible.
Provide, at employer’s cost, CDC-compliant face coverings or surgical masks to protected workers, for indoor work. All but immunocompromised workers can opt for no mask-wearing outdoors. Employers can determine that PPE, e., respirators, are necessary for protected workers, including when PPE is a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. In addition, if workers “want to use PPE if they are still concerned about their personal safety (e.g., if a family member is at higher-risk for severe illness,” employers should “[e]ncourage and support voluntary use of PPE in these circumstances and ensure the equipment is adequate to protect the worker.” However, if face coverings present greater risk, e.g., from heat-related illness, the employer should develop other face covering/respirator options.
Educate and train workers on COVID-19, controls (including vaccination), and workplace policies, and track that training “as appropriate.” “Ensure” that supervisors are familiar with the employer’s “workplace flexibilities and other human resources policies and procedures,” and that all workers understand their rights.
“Suggest that unvaccinated customers, visitors, or guests wear face coverings,” in workplaces where there are public interactions with protected workers, “even if no longer required by your jurisdiction.”
Maintain ventilation systems, per CDC and ASHRAE guidance, including installing air filters at a minimum of MERV 13.
Routinely clean and disinfect if someone with COVID-19 symptoms or diagnosis was in the worksite within the past 24 hours, in accordance with OSHA standards for use of cleaning chemicals.
Record and report COVID-19 infections/deaths per 29 CFR part 1904, but through May 2022, OSHA is not requiring that adverse reactions to a mandated vaccine be recorded as a work-related illness.
Protect workers from retaliation and establish an anonymous process for voicing concerns.
Follow OSHA standards on PPE, sanitation, and other potentially applicable regulations, as well as an employer’s obligations under the General Duty Clause.
In the Appendix, OSHA recommends that employers assess whether their protected workers are at greater risk, by evaluating close contact situations, duration of contacts, type of contacts, and “distinctive factors” such as employer-provided transport, community exposure, and communal housing and living quarters, particularly in manufacturing, meat and poultry processing, high-volume retail and grocery, and seafood processing. In those workplaces, employers should evaluate imposing additional protections for protected workers, such as physical distancing, staggered work schedules, ventilation improvements, and barriers.
Although OSHA urges employers to impose a separate set of obligations solely for a subset of workers, OSHA is silent on several issues of importance to an employer managing its workplace during this “vaccine-available” phase of the pandemic. Instead, it is up to employers to determine how to navigate the public health, safety, and equal opportunity employment law, and other legal constraints to implement those issues at their workplaces. For example, OSHA is silent on:
An employer’s methods for identifying or verifying which of its workers are vaccinated and, therefore, no longer need to be protected from COVID-19 hazards.
Whether there are any non-excepted industries where there should be protections for vaccinated workers, who are not known to be at-risk, but who may still get symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 because, as CDC has said: “How long vaccine protection lasts and how much vaccines protect against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants are still under investigation.” However, vaccinated workers are indirectly addressed when OSHA states that “all workers should be supported in continuing face covering use if they choose, especially in order to safely work closely with other people.”
Whether those who contracted COVID-19 over the past 90 days, but are not vaccinated, can be treated as vaccinated workers. (Note: CDC guidance states that people who recovered from COVID-19 do not need to quarantine after exposure to another COVID-19 case.)
OSHA’s Appendix does not emphasize PPE, such as N95 respirators, even for voluntary use, and even at the higher-risk workplaces.
The Updated OSHA Guidance does not refer to the agency’s March 12, 2021 COVID-19 National Emphasis Program or enforcement protocols.
The Updated OSHA Guidance no longer (or only briefly) discusses several topics that were discussed at length in the January 29, 2021 OSHA guidance. For example, the old guidance instructed employers to “Not distinguish between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not.” The Updated OSHA Guidance instructs the opposite. The Updated OSHA Guidance also:
No longer addresses the need to assign a workplace coordinator for COVID-19 or to conduct a “thorough hazard assessment”.
No longer recommends an extensive and enhanced cleaning and disinfection process.
No longer addresses screening and testing.
No longer provides extensive instructions regarding “good hygiene practices,” including hand washing and sanitizers.
No longer states detailed recommendations on isolation, quarantine, contact tracing, and return to work protocols. Instead, OSHA now encourages employers to report COVID-19 cases as required locally and to support local contact tracing efforts, and to have all ill workers stay home, but does so in far less detail.
Throughout the pandemic, employers have been looking to the CDC and OSHA, as well as the EEOC, for guidance on the steps they should take to protect workers and to avoid liability to their workers, the government, and the public. Particularly now that state and local governments have eliminated all or most COVID-19 restrictions, employers seeking to limit their liabilities will have the difficult task of developing different ways to work now that their employees can, and according to OSHA, should be divided into two populations: the vaccinated worker and the protected worker. The Updated OSHA Guidance describes how the protected worker should be treated differently, but the employer has the more difficult challenge of adapting that guidance to the business’s unique culture, financial constraints, and goals for survival and success, during yet another unprecedented phase of working in a pandemic.
For more information or advice on the OSHA standards and enforcement during the pandemic, please contact the author. Additional information regarding working during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found in Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and in the Jenner & Block COVID-19 Resource Center.
California’s COVID-19 Workplace Safety Standard May Be Revised on Short Notice
By Leah Song
On May 20, 2021, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (“Board”) held a public meeting to consider revisions to the State’s COVID-19 emergency temporary standard (“ETS”), which had been the applicable law for California workplaces since November 30, 2020. (See December 1, 2020 Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog). On May 7, 2021, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (“Cal/OSHA”) issued a notice of emergency action regarding proposed revisions to the ETS for the Board to consider for adoption, given the developing science around COVID‑19, particularly the impact of vaccines and Cal/OSHA’s experience enforcing the ETS. However, on May 19, 2021, Cal/OSHA asked the Board to table its vote on Cal/OSHA’s May 7 proposed COVID-19 ETS revisions.
Given Cal/OSHA’s May 7 proposed revisions to the ETS included notable revisions changing definitions, masking and physical distancing requirements, and engineering controls, including distinctions based on whether employees were vaccinated. However, on May 13, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) posted its guidance for fully vaccinated people recommending, in part, that “fully vaccinated people no longer need to a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” CDC, Guidance for Fully Vaccinated People (May 13, 2021). In light of that new guidance, and the science that the risk is low that vaccinated people transmit the virus, Governor Newsom announced that the state will implement the new CDC mask guidelines on June 15, 2021, along with fully reopening the economy. In addition, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly announced on May 17, 2021 that, starting on June 15, 2021, “California plans to implement the CDC’s guidelines around masking to allow fully vaccinated Californians to go without a mask in most indoor settings.” However, California Department of Public Health issued a directive on May 21, 2021, that adopted the CDC guidance, but also stated that, with respect to COVID-19 protections, employers remain subject to the ETS, as applicable to their business.
On May 19, 2021, the day before the Board meeting, Cal/OSHA sent a memo recommending that the Board not vote on its May 7 proposed revisions, because it “believes it is important to revisit the proposed COVID-19 prevention emergency regulations in light of this new [CDC] guidance.” In the memo, Cal/OSHA stated that it will “limit any potential changes to consideration of the recent [CDC] guidance” regarding fully vaccinated people. On May 20, 2021, after hearing hours of public comment, the Board voted to table Cal/OSHA’s May 7 changes and to allow it to post, by May 28, 2021, its new proposed changes to the ETS for public comment. The Board will vote on June 3, 2021 in a special meeting as to whether to adopt the new Cal/OSHA proposed changes or to take other action on the ETS.
Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on the California COVID-19 ETS and other COVID-19 matters as they unfold. Additional information regarding working during the COVID‑19 pandemic can be found on this blog and in Jenner & Block’s COVID‑19 Resource Center.
Where is OSHA’s COVID-19 ETS? No Where the Ides of March.
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
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.”
Moreover, supporting the “grave danger” element for a COVID-19 ETS is challenging for OSHA, especially because the March 15 deadline gave it only two months to assemble the data and proof necessary. Further compounding the timing challenge, there are data gaps from the prior Administration, making it difficult to prove that any particular regulatory action would eliminate the grave danger. In addition, with vaccines becoming increasingly available, predicting how many workers would be protected from “grave danger” in the near future confounds easy statistical prediction. Regarding the “necessity” element, the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General’s February 25, 2021 report (the OIG Report) criticizes OSHA’s pandemic performance as deficient, but it principally blames OSHA’s “reduced inspections and most inspections not being conducted onsite” as the reasons that employees were subjected to “greater safety risk.” OIG Report at p. i. On the other hand, the OIG Report also urges OSHA to consider an ETS, noting that OSHA’s COVID-19 guidance is not enforceable, but it also states that OSHA can rely on its guidance as evidence to support a General Duty Clause claim. OIG Report, pp. 10-14. Thus, perhaps inadvertently, the OIG Report more strongly demonstrates that deficiencies in OSHA’s workplace safety protection were due to lack of enforcement, not necessarily the lack of tools to do so.
In addition to legal risks, the political risks to OSHA and the Biden Administration from a national ETS are substantial, particularly at this time. The President and his closest advisers are on a cross-country tour, promoting the American Rescue Plan and a nationwide vaccination rollout. In addition, the President announced on day one of his administration, that he intends to include private sector businesses in his National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness; the President may not want to distract those employers and the working public with a different message that could be generated by a new COVID-19 ETS.
No doubt there is strong political support, among labor and other constituencies, for an ETS. OSHA has received such demands, including in the nomination hearings on Mayor Marty Walsh as Secretary of Labor, from labor and other advocates. They have suggested basing an ETS on the Virginia standard, the California ETS, or OSHA’s own guidance. On February 15, 2021, former HHS and OSHA officials, joined by other public health luminaries, called on the federal COVID-19 Pandemic Response members, as well as OSHA, to revise OSHA guidance and regulations, including by requiring healthcare workers and workers “at very high risk of exposure and infection such as in food processing, prisons, and security” to be provided N95 respirators, so that they need not rely solely on face coverings. Letter from R. Bright, et al., “Immediate Action is Needed to Address SARS-CoV-2 Inhalation Exposure” (Feb. 15, 2021). The letter also called on OSHA to issue an ETS “that recognizes the importance of aerosol inhalation, includes requirements to assess risks of exposure, and requires implementation of control measures following a hierarchy of controls.” On February 10, 2021, the American Industrial Hygiene Association and eight other scientific organizations issued a Joint Consensus Statement asking that OSHA issue a COVID-19 ETS.
In contrast, on February 25, 2021, House Republican members urged the Acting Secretary of Labor not to move quickly on an ETS, citing the difficulties that the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health had when it issued a COVID-19 ETS that quickly had to be modified, by order of the Governor, due to new CDC guidance. Given that by March 15 the Senate had not confirmed the nomination for a Secretary of Labor or an Assistant Secretary for OSHA, issuing an ETS without confirmed leaders puts the department and OSHA at further political risk.
Given these significant political risks and legal hurdles, it should be no surprise that OSHA’s March 15, 2021 decision on an ETS is: “not now.”
What COVID-19 Programs Has the Biden Administration’s OSHA Issued to Date?
President Biden’s Executive Order instructed OSHA to take several COVID-19 workplace safety actions, including: (1) issue “revised guidance” by February 4, 2021; (2) enhance enforcement; and (3) as discussed above, consider and, if necessary, issue a COVID-19 ETS by March 15. Executive Order 13999, § 2. With respect to that first action, OSHA beat the President’s deadline issuing a revised guidance eight days later on January 29, 2021. The new “stronger” guidance document, entitled Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace (Protecting Workers Guidance), used more resolute language, such as directives that employers “should” implement certain programs, provided more details on a range of elements, including emphasizing communication to workers in native languages and non-retaliation, and incorporated recent CDC guidance.
Introducing the principal elements of its Protecting Guidance, OSHA reiterated employers’ obligation under the General Duty Clause, and stated that, “[i]mplementing a workplace COVID-19 prevention program is the most effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at work.” One new element in OSHA’s Protecting Workers Guidance is its reference to COVID-19 vaccination, stating that an employer’s effective COVID-19 Prevention Plan should: “Mak[e] a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available at no cost to all eligible employees,” and employers should provide information about “the benefits and safety of vaccinations.” However, because the science on whether the vaccine prevents transmission is not settled, employers should be sure to not “distinguish between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not,” with regard to continuing protective measures, such as face coverings. However, as in all of the COVID-19 guidance documents, OSHA reiterated that its document “is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations.”
Then on March 12, 2021, just days before the ETS “deadline,” 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). These actions directly respond to President Biden’s Executive Order directing 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).
A National Emphasis Program is an OSHA enforcement policy procedure through which OSHA decides how it is selecting sites for enforcement initiatives. An OSHA enforcement response plan informs CSHOs how to conduct their enforcement activities. In this case, the COVID‑19 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 targets 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.
In the Enforcement Plan, OSHA instructs its Area Directors and CSHOs to “prioritize COVID-19-related inspections involving deaths or multiple hospitalizations due to occupational exposures to COVID-19” and “[w]here practical … perform on-site workplace inspections.” The Enforcement Plan provides greater detail about how the CSHO should conduct a COVID-19-related investigation and inspection, and the bases for citations issued to employers. While not addressing whether or when an ETS will be issued, OSHA buried in the text of both the NEP and the Enforcement Plan a few statements that “in the event that” OSHA issues an ETS, the ETS will be used instead of the General Duty Clause as the basis for citations with respect to COVID-19 safety violations, which will be enforced through the new NEP and Enforcement Plan.
What Might a COVID-19 ETS Look Like?
If OSHA were to issue a COVID-19 ETS, it may not be as comprehensive as either the Virginia COVID-19 standard or the California COVID-19 ETS. For example, OSHA may decide to focus on specific procedures for a targeted industry, perhaps adopting a standard like California’s Aerosol Transmissible Diseases standard that applies only to the healthcare industry. Or OSHA may decide to issue a more comprehensive regulation, but target high hazard industries, such as healthcare, congregate living facilities, meat processing plants, and/or manufacturing facilities, such as it just did in the COVID-19 NEP. That more comprehensive ETS could have the same substance of its most recent Protecting Workers Guidance.
As another alternative, OSHA may decide to focus an ETS solely on mask-wearing in the workplace, including in response to certain states’ recent decisions to eliminate a mask mandate. This approach may mirror what other federal agencies have already done. On January 30, 2021, the CDC issued a nationwide order requiring masks of a certain type to be worn, by the public and workers, in and on airplanes, trains, buses, and various modes of surface transportation, including in stations and terminals. Requirement for Persons to Wear Masks While on Conveyances and at Transportation Hubs. CDC Agency Order, 86 FR 8025 (Feb. 3, 2021). On January 31, 2021, TSA issued a Security Directive for enforcing the CDC Order. Security Directive 1582/84-21-01.
On March 1, 2021, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued the Emergency Order Requiring Face Mask Use in Railroad Operations, stating that it was “exercising its emergency railroad safety authority” to require rail carriers to require mask wearing by railway workers “while engaged in railroad operations.” 86 FR 11888, 11890 (Mar. 1, 2021). The FRA Emergency Order may be the best example to date for an OSHA mask-only ETS, in that the FRA is required to justify its Emergency Order as necessary to address an emergency safety situation. To support its Emergency Order, the FRA noted that it has authority to issue emergency orders to address an unsafe practice that “causes an emergency situation involving a hazard of death, personal injury, or significant harm to the environment,” including “restrictions and prohibitions… that may be necessary to abate the situation.” 86 FR at 11888, citing 49 U.S.C. § 20104. The FRA justified its emergency order by describing the impact of the pandemic generally; concerns about virus variants that spread more easily and quickly; and its field observations of railway personnel not wearing masks. The FRA stated that its emergency order was “necessary…to ensure a minimum level of nationwide compliance, together with the [TSA’s Security Directive].” 86 FR at 11890. The FRA also referred to the railroad transportation system being essential for public health, the economy, and “other bedrocks of American life.” Id. While applicable only to a specific industry, the FRA emergency order may indicate a targeted approach that OSHA may take at all workplaces, i.e., requiring the wearing of face masks at workplaces and in the work environment when a worker is exposed to others, except for narrow exceptions.
Particularly after the new Secretary of Labor is sworn in, we may well see an OSHA ETS. In any case, that ETS, if issued this year, will not have an Ides of March date, and its negative connotations, as an additional burden.
For more information or advice on the OSHA standards and enforcement during the pandemic, please contact the author. Additional information regarding working during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found in Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog and in the Jenner & Block COVID-19 Resource Center.
OSHA Issues Immediately Effective COVID-19 National Enforcement Program and Updated Enforcement Guidance: No ETS Yet
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
On March 12, 2012, 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.
In the Enforcement Plan, OSHA instructs its Area Directors and CSHOs to “prioritize COVID-19-related inspections involving deaths or multiple hospitalizations due to occupational exposures to COVID-19” and “[w]here practical … perform on-site workplace inspections.” The Enforcement Plan provides greater detail about how the CSHO should conduct a COVID-19-related investigation and inspection, and the bases for citations issued to employers.
The NEP and Enforcement Plan apply only to workplaces in states subject to federal OSHA enforcement. However, OSHA “strongly encourages” adoption of the NEP by the 28 states/territories that enforce “at least as effective” state plans for their private sector employers and/or state and local government workplaces. By May 11, 2021, the state-plan states/territories must submit to OSHA a notice of intent to adopt the NEP.
What Should an Employer Do Now?
In light of the NEP and the Enforcement Plan, all employers who are not primarily relying on telework or other remote practices for their employees should consider the following:
Check to see if your business is within one of the NEP’s targeted industries, listed in NEP Appendix A, Table 1 (Targeted Industries in Healthcare by 2017 NAICS) or Table 2 (Targeted Industries for non-Healthcare by 2017 NAICS), the latter of which includes meat and poultry processing facilities, supermarkets, discount department stores, general warehousing and storage, full and limited service restaurants, and certain temporary help agencies.
Check to see if your business is within a CISA-listed critical infrastructure industry that OSHA has determined has “the highest frequency of close contact exposures to the public or to coworkers resulting from their on-site work-related duties,” as listed in Appendix B, Table 1. These industries include manufacturing, construction, transportation, and merchandising businesses who had essential workers on-site throughout most, if not all, of the pandemic.
Particularly if you are in one of the targeted industries, and especially if your OSHA 300A logs or other reports include COVID-19-related days away cases, hospitalizations, or fatalities, review and update your COVID-19 safety documents, programs, and procedures, including your:
written COVID-19 safety and health plan, including contingency planning for emergencies, such as the pandemic
procedures for hazard assessment
procedures for PPE assessment and use (see 29 CFR § 1910.132)
face covering measures for employees and all those with whom an employee would come in contact in the work environment, consistent with CDC guidelines regarding construction, donning, and maintenance of face coverings
sanitation practices (see 29 CFR § 1910.141)
worker protection actions implemented under the hierarchy of controls (engineering controls, administrative controls, work practices, and PPE), including physical distancing measures; ventilation; stay-home-when sick and return-to-work procedures for exposed and sick workers; and both routine and case-specific cleaning of surfaces
respiratory program and PPE provision, including any modifications made as a result of the pandemic and documented good faith measures when compliance is not possible (see 29 CFR §§ 1910.132, 1910.134)
COVID-19 signage (see 29 CFR § 1910.145)
training and training records
signage, training, and procedures encouraging employees to report symptoms and to raise safety concerns, and protecting employees against retaliation for doing so
practices regarding employee access to exposure and medical records (see 29 CFR § 1910.1020)
injury/illness recordkeeping and reporting documents and procedures (see 29 CFR Part 1904 and related enforcement memoranda and guidance)
OSHA Hazard Alerts applicable to your industry
Review OSHA’s newest COVID-19 Guidance, Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace ( 29, 2021)
Consider the four elements of the General Duty Clause violation with respect to COVID-19-related hazards: (1) employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed; (2) hazard was recognized; (3) hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and (4) there was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard. CDC guidelines will be used to show a recognized hazard and/or feasible means to abate the hazard.
What Should an Employer Expect if OSHA Conducts an Inspection?
OSHA will not tell you in advance that it is starting an investigation and typically arrives on-site without prior warning.
Opening conferences will be held in a manner consistent with COVID-19 safety precautions, i.e., in an uncontaminated administrative area or outdoors, and will include union/employee representatives and management personnel responsible for COVID-19 safety and for other COVID-19-related programs, such as HR, medical staff, and facilities/physical plant.
The “walkaround” will occur in areas that CSHO determines he/she wants to see. Note that the CSHO can issue citations for any health or safety hazard observed during the walkaround, even if not related to COVID-19.
Interviews of management and non-management personnel can be conducted before, during, and after the walkaround. Employees may be contacted by phone and/or the CSHO may ask the employer to set up such calls while on-site. Typically, management cannot be present during the interviews, and an employee can approach the CSHO to speak privately.
The CSHO’s document review, including of records of programs described above, may occur before a walkaround and/or the CSHO will ask to see or to have sent to the Area Office a copy of specified categories of documents.
CSHO will be particularly sensitive to indications or complaints of retaliation, including with respect to talking to OSHA representatives at any time, including during an investigation. Actions considered to be retaliation can result in separate Whistleblower enforcement actions, which can result in injunctive or monetary relief to the employee.
Citations, if issued, will be in the Serious classification, with penalties up to $13,653 per violation.
A General Duty Clause violation will not be issued except after approval by the OSHA Regional Administrator and the National Office, with input from the Department of Labor’s Regional Solicitor.
OSHA may decide to issue a Hazard Alert Letter (HAL) rather than a General Duty Clause or other citation, with recommended actions to be taken and subsequently reported to OSHA.
If the work establishment is part of a multi-location corporation, and a COVID-19 citation or HAL has been issued, OSHA may send a letter to the corporate entity about the citation or HAL and recommend that the corporation assess and abate COVID-19 hazards at all other locations. If unabated hazards are subsequently found, this notification letter may serve as subsequent bases for OSHA upgrading the amount of penalties or classification of its violations.
In sum, although not (yet) an ETS, OSHA has proclaimed that it intends to take aggressive enforcement measures with respect to a broad range of businesses that have been operating in their usual workplaces during the pandemic. Employers in these businesses should prepare accordingly.
For more information or advice on US and states’ OSHA standards and guidance and enforcement nationwide, please contact the author. Additional information regarding working during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found on this blog and in the Jenner & Block COVID-19 Resource Center.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Releases Updated Public Health Guidelines for Vaccinated Individuals, Including Recommendations for the Workplace
By Matthew G. Lawson
On Monday, March 8, 2021, the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) released its first set of public health recommendations for individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19, titled “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People.” The CDC’s newly published guidelines are intended to replace the CDC’s existing public health guidance specifically for those individuals fully vaccinated for COVID-19. By “fully vaccinated”, CDC means ≥2 weeks after an individual has received the second dose in a 2-dose series (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna), or ≥2 weeks after an individual has received a single-dose vaccine (Johnson and Johnson [J&J]/Janssen). The updated guidance includes specific recommendations for vaccinated individuals in the non-healthcare workplace, public spaces and private and/or family settings. While the CDC guidance is only intended to provide recommended best practices, it is anticipated that the CDC’s newest guidance will be relied on by states, municipalities, school systems, and private employers as these entities continue to update and implement their own respective health guidance and COVID-19 policies and protocols.
According to the updated guidelines, vaccinated persons can now engage in a number of new activities, including:
Visiting with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing;
Visiting with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing; and
Refraining from quarantine and testing following a known exposure to COVID-19 if asymptomatic.
Notably, the new guidelines leave in place many of CDC’s existing recommendations for both vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals. For example, the CDC recommends that fully vaccinated individuals continue to wear a mask in public, physical distance, avoid crowds and avoid poorly ventilated spaces. In addition, the CDC is continuing to recommend that vaccinated individuals delay domestic and international travel, and, if they do travel, continue to follow all CDC requirements and recommendations when doing so.
CDC’s guidelines for vaccinated individuals include a number of implications for private employers. In the context of non-healthcare workplaces, the CDC is now recommending that fully vaccinated employees do not need to quarantine following a known or suspected exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace unless that the vaccinated individual develops “COVID-like symptoms.” However, the guidelines still recommend that vaccinated persons receive testing “through routine workplace screening programs” following an exposure to COVID-19. Notably, CDC’s no quarantine recommendation does not extend to vaccinated employees working in congregate settings or other high-density workplaces (e.g., meat and poultry processing and manufacturing plants), and as a result vaccinated employees in congregate work environments should continue to adhere to the quarantine requirements following exposure. Employers should therefore evaluate their respective work environment to determine the appropriate quarantine procedures for employees who have received a vaccine. Under the guidelines, vaccinated individuals also need to comply with any existing COVID-19 health and safety rules issued by their employer. Thus, an employee’s vaccination status should not allow the employee to avoid his or her workplaces’ COVID-19 policies and procedures. Finally, CDC’s new guidelines do not update the CDC’s prior recommendation (issued December 30, 2020) regarding business travel. The CDC is continuing to recommend that employers “minimize non-essential travel” for all employees and, if resuming non-essential travel, ensure their employees continue to follow all state and local COVID-19 regulations and guidance regardless of their vaccination status.
In the accompanying scientific brief to its newly released guidance, the CDC cites to existing studies demonstrating the highly effective nature of the approved mRNA COVID-19 vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 infection (including both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections). Despite early evidence of the effectiveness of the approved vaccines, the CDC noted that only “approximately two-thirds of U.S. adults state that they [are] at least somewhat likely to receive a COVID-19 vaccine (or had received one already).” Because maintaining requirements to continue COVID-19 prevention measures after vaccination “may disincentive vaccine uptake,” the CDC explained that its new guidance intends to communicate additional advantages, to the individual and the community, from vaccination. The CDC advised that its guidance for vaccinated individuals will continue to be updated and modified “based on the level of community spread of SARS-CoV-2, the proportion of the population that is fully vaccinated, and the rapidly evolving science on COVID-19 vaccines.”
OSHA under Deadline for a Nationwide COVID 19 Workplace Safety Rule: Four States’ Existing Laws and New Federal Guidance and Orders Foretell the Future
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
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, 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. 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
US OSHA currently has several well-established regulations that apply to aspects of workplace protection that also apply to certain workplaces operating during the pandemic. For example, OSHA’s PPE and respiratory standards would apply particularly to work in hospitals and those in direct contact with people or bodies known to be infected by COVID-19. See, e.g., 29 CFR 1910.132, 1910.133, 1910.134. OSHA’s illness recordkeeping standard applies to workplaces otherwise required to do that recordkeeping (29 CFR 1904.2(a)), and all workplaces are required to report to OSHA work-related cases that result in hospitalization or death within 24 hours of a workplace exposure (see fn 9). The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, 29 USC 654(a)(1), requires each employer to furnish to 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). Yet, the General Duty Clause does not provide clear direction on what an employer must do at the workplace, and enforcement by OSHA during the pandemic under the General Duty Clause can be difficult in all but the most egregious cases.
On its COVID-19 resource webpage, OSHA essentially recognizes that it does not have a comprehensive standard for working during the pandemic, as the state-plan states’ COVID-19 regulations do. OSHA points to its own bloodborne pathogen standard and California’s ATD standard as either provisions that “offer a framework that may help control some sources of the virus,” or “provid[ing] useful guidance for protecting [non-healthcare] workers exposed to SARS-CoV-2.” OSHA has responded to previous threats of airborne disease and viral transmission by issuing specific guidance, as in the case of the Zika virus, avian flu, and the H1N1 virus. To state the obvious, SARS-CoV-2 is unique in US workplaces for many reasons, including the length of time it has been a threat, its asymptomatic transmission, and the sheer number of cases of sickness and death.
On March 9, 2020, OSHA issued its “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID‑19,” (Preparing Guidance) and on June 17, 2020, OSHA issued its “Guidance on Returning to Work,” (Reopening Guidance) (both currently under review by OSHA under the Biden Administration). In its Preparing Guidance, OSHA recommended that employers divide 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. Specific controls generally were not offered and OSHA repeatedly described controls as “to be considered,” including physical barriers.
In its Reopening Guidance issued three months later as a supplement to the Preparing Guidance, OSHA’s “guiding principles” were that employers’ reopening plans “should address”:
Identification and Isolation of Sick Employees
Return to Work After Illness or Exposure
In addition to the two basic guidance documents, through 2020, OSHA issued industry-specific COVID-19 Alerts for specific industries or types of jobs. For example, it issued, COVID-19 Guidance for the Package Delivery Workforce, which contained “tips [to] help reduce the risk of exposure.” Those tips included suggestions such as, “Allow workers to wear masks over their nose and mouth to prevent them from spreading the virus” and “Discourage workers from using other workers’ tools and equipment.” These guidance documents were not clear mandates for any specific type of hazard control.
The previous administration successfully resisted attempts to force it to adopt an ETS, instead insisting that it would rely on existing regulations and guidance, the General Duty Clause, and its enforcement priorities.
Four State-Plan States’ Approach
Four state-plan states determined that the business in their state should be regulated more prescriptively and with compliance mandates. An evaluation of each of these states’ regulations can be found in our Guide to COVID-19 Workplace Safety Regulation in Four State-Plan States.
In summary, these states took each of the elements in the Reopening Guidance and added specific, mandatory requirements, particularly with respect to hazard controls, return-to-work policies, and training. The principal differences are whether the state’s regulations expressly accommodate different levels of exposure risk (as described in the Preparing Guidance) and/or whether the state provides specific requirements for specific industries. The structure of Virginia’s permanent COVID-19 workplace safety regulation is built on the exposure risk approach described in the Preparing Guidance, and then adds specific controls and requirements for each exposure risk level. Michigan Emergency Rules require employers to categorize risk, but also includes hazard controls by industry. Oregon Emergency Rules have more industry-specific, fewer industry-wide prescriptive controls. Only California’s ETS does not rely on either an industry-specific or exposure risk regulatory approach, imposing requirements through its Injury and Illness Prevention Plan model for all employers except those healthcare employers already covered by its 2009 Aerosol-Transmitted Disease regulation. California’s ETS also requires more action, compared to all other States, in response to COVID-19 cases in the workplace, such as testing of exposed and potentially exposed employees and wage and benefit protections for employees who are required to be excluded from the workplace for quarantine or isolation.
By the end of the prior administration, these four states were the only states with workplaces operating under a comprehensive COVID-19 workplace safety regulation, enforced by the state’s occupational safety and health agency, not federal OSHA. The other states’ employers were operating under US OSHA guidance and existing regulations, as described above, and their Governors’ COVID-19 public health directives and orders.
The Biden Administration’s OSHA Guidance to Date
President Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety instructed OSHA to take several COVID-19 workplace safety actions: issue “revised guidance” within two weeks; consider and, if necessary, issue a COVID-19 ETS by March 15; enhance enforcement; and initiate a multilingual workers’ rights outreach program. Executive Order 13999, § 2.
OSHA issued its revised guidance eight days later on January 29, 2021. The new “stronger” guidance document, entitled Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace (Protecting Guidance), used more resolute language, such as directives that employers “should” implement certain programs, provided more details on a range of elements, including emphasizing communication to workers in native languages and non-retaliation, and incorporated recent CDC guidance.
Introducing the principal elements of its Protecting Guidance, OSHA reiterated employers’ obligation under the General Duty Clause, and stated that, “[i]mplementing a workplace COVID-19 prevention program is the most effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at work.” According to the Protecting Guidance, that program includes:
Assigning a COVID-19 coordinator responsible for COVID-19 issues on behalf of the employer
Conducting a hazard assessment
Implementing controls, following the hierarchy of controls starting with engineering controls, administrative controls, PPE, and suppressing spread through hand washing, sanitation, and face coverings
Considering protections for workers at higher risk for severe illness, including age, through supportive policies and practices
Communicating and training in appropriate languages and in an understandable fashion
As a “best practice,” instituting a “two-way” communication system for workers to report their symptoms and medical status and for employers to report illness cases in the workplace
Instructing sick and exposed workers to stay home and having non-punitive absence policies
Performing cleaning and disinfection, particularly after ill people have been at work
Following state and local guidance regarding pre-entry health screening and testing
Recording and reporting cases per existing regulation and reporting to health departments as locally required
Protecting workers from retaliation for raising concerns about COVID-19 hazards
OSHA’s revised guidance also repeats, in detail, CDC guidelines regarding face coverings and periods of time for isolation and quarantine. However, what perhaps is most distinctive about the revised OSHA guidance is its reference to COVID-19 vaccination. OSHA’s Protecting Guidance states that an effective COVID-19 Prevention Plan should: “Mak[e] a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available at no cost to all eligible employees,” and employers should provide information about “the benefits and safety of vaccinations.” However, because the science on whether the vaccine prevents transmission is not settled, employers should be sure to not “distinguish between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not,” with regard to protective measures, such as face coverings.
OSHA’s Protecting Guidance lays out in more detail the elements of a COVID-19 Prevention Plan, and indicates new concerns for enforcement, including with respect to language usage and vaccination efforts. However, OSHA’s enforcement powers continue to be limited primarily to General Duty Clause and PPE violations, as occurred in the prior administration. Like its predecessor guidance, OSHA states that the document “is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations. It contains recommendations as well as descriptions of existing mandatory safety and health standards. The recommendations are advisory in nature, informational in content, and are intended to assist employers in recognizing and abating hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm as part of their obligation to provide a safe and healthful workplace.”
What OSHA’s Soon to Drop “Shoe” May Look Like
In considering issuing a COVID-19 ETS, OSHA faces political and legal risks that the state-plan states do not face. As noted above, OSHA has not even attempted to issue an ETS in close to 40 years. The facts that work through the pandemic has been occurring for a year and vaccines are becoming increasingly available will likely hurt OSHA’s ability to prove grave danger and necessity across all workplaces and in all industries. The fact that OSHA has issued COVID-19-related citations, with proposed penalties exceeding $4 million, under the General Duty Clause and existing regulatory standards, will also make it difficult for OSHA to prove the need for a broad ETS. Even though the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General’s February 25, 2021 report (the OIG Report) criticizes OSHA’s pandemic performance as deficient, it largely blames “increased complaints, reduced inspections, and most inspections not being conducted onsite subject employees to greater safety risk.” OIG Report at p. i. The OIG Report also stresses that OSHA’s guidance on COVID-19 safety is not enforceable, and urges OSHA to consider an ETS; however, it notes that OSHA can rely on its guidance as evidence to support a General Duty Clause claim. OIG Report, pp. 10-14. Indeed, as recently as February 23, 2021, OSHA announced that it had issued a citation under the General Duty Clause against a manufacturer, after an employee died, allegedly after workplace exposure to SARS-CoV-2. Although the OIG Report supports a COVID-19 ETS, perhaps inadvertently, the report more strongly demonstrates that deficiencies in OSHA’s workplace safety protection was due to lack of enforcement, not necessarily due to the lack of tools to do so.
Although OSHA has received demands from labor and other advocates to enact a nationwide ETS, resembling the Virginia model, the California model, or its own guidance, OSHA may well decide that a more politically and legally feasible approach is a more targeted one. For example, under the Biden Administration, federal orders requiring face coverings in workplaces have already begun. On January 21, 2021, the President’s Executive Order 13998, Promoting COVID‑19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel, 86 FR 7205 (Jan. 26, 2021), has resulted in the CDC issuing a nationwide order requiring masks of a certain type to be worn, by the public and workers, in and on airplanes, trains, buses, and various modes of surface transportation, including in stations and terminals. Requirement for Persons to Wear Masks While on Conveyances and at Transportation Hubs. CDC Agency Order, 86 FR 8025 (Feb. 3, 2021). On January 31, 2021, the TSA issued a Security Directive for enforcing the CDC Order. Security Directive 1582/84-21-01.
Most recently, on March 1, 2021, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued the Emergency Order Requiring Face Mask Use in Railroad Operations, stating that it was “exercising its emergency railroad safety authority” to require rail carriers to require mask wearing by railway workers “while engaged in railroad operations.” 86 FR 11888, 11890 (Mar. 1, 2021). To support this Emergency Order, the FRA noted that it has authority to issue emergency orders to address an unsafe practice that “causes an emergency situation involving a hazard of death, personal injury, or significant harm to the environment,” including “restrictions and prohibitions… that may be necessary to abate the situation.” 86 FR at 11888, citing 49 U.S.C. § 20104. The FRA justified its emergency order by describing the impact of the pandemic generally; concerns about virus variants that spread more easily and quickly; and field observations of personnel not wearing masks. The FRA stated that its emergency order was “necessary…to ensure a minimum level of nationwide compliance, together with the [TSA’s Security Directive].” 86 FR at 11890. The FRA also referred to the railroad transportation system being essential for public health, the economy, and “other bedrocks of American life.” Id. While clearly applicable only to a specific industry, the FRA emergency order may indicate a targeted approach that OSHA may take at all workplaces, i.e., requiring the wearing of face masks at workplaces and in the work environment, except for narrow exceptions.
OSHA also may decide to issue a regulation targeting a particular industry or hazards, such as adopting California’s ATD Standard as a federal ETS for the healthcare industry. Or OSHA may convert its most recent Protecting Workers guidance into an ETS targeted to specific high hazard industries, such as healthcare, congregate living facilities, meat processing plants, or manufacturing facilities. OSHA also may use its ETS powers to obtain information regarding the immediate reporting of COVID-19 cases in the workplace, in order to gather the data necessary to support both enhanced enforcement efforts or a future ETS.
Notably, on February 15, 2021, former HHS and OSHA officials, joined by other public health luminaries, called on COVID-19 Pandemic Response members, Jeffrey Zients, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, as well as other top federal officials, including at OSHA, to have the CDC and OSHA revise their guidance and regulations, including by requiring healthcare workers and workers “at very high risk of exposure and infection such as in food processing, prisons, and security” to be provided N95 respirators, so that they need not rely solely on face coverings. Letter from R. Bright, et al., “Immediate Action is Needed to Address SARS-CoV-2 Inhalation Exposure” (Feb. 15, 2021). The letter’s signatories also called on OSHA to issue an ETS “that recognizes the importance of aerosol inhalation, includes requirements to assess risks of exposure, and requires implementation of control measures following a hierarchy of controls,” essentially the basic elements in OSHA’s Protecting Workers guidance. They also called on OSHA to require that workers at lower exposure risks be “offered high-performing barrier face coverings tested to the STM F3502-21 Standard Specification for Barrier Face Coverings with at least 80% filter efficiency, no more than 15mm H2O air flow resistance and total inward leakage of no more than 5% on a panel of at least 10 subjects.” Id. They further recommended that this OSHA broad masking requirement be supported by a “national effort,” including under the Defense Production Act, to have N95 respirators and the ASTM 80% face coverings available for nationwide worker protection. Id.
Whichever approach OSHA takes by March 15, 2021, it will face political opposition, and the legal opposition to any ETS likely will be fierce. In the meantime, employers should consider that President Biden’s Protecting Worker Health and Safety Executive Order also called for OSHA to ramp up its enforcement activities, including to protect workplaces with a large number of people at risk. 86 FR at 7211, §§ 2(c), (d). Thus, regardless of whether OSHA issues a nationwide ETS, employers who have experienced multiple cases of COVID-19 or are in industries with higher numbers of cases would be well-advised to have in place a COVID-19 prevention plan, with well-recognized physical distancing, sanitation, mask-wearing, and other now-standard COVID-19 prevention controls.
For more information or advice on the various state-plan states’ COVID-19 standards, OSHA standards and guidance, and enforcement nationwide, please contact the author. Additional information regarding working during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found on this blog and in the Jenner & Block COVID-19 Resource Center.
 Asbestos Info. Ass’n v. OSHA, 727 F.2d 415 (5th Cir. 1984) (ETS rejected because OSHA did not sufficiently support its conclusion that 80 people would die in the next six months or that the ETS was necessary given its existing respiratory standard).
 State plans are authorized under Section 18 of the OSH Act and must have regulations “at least as effective” as federal OSHA.” 29 U.S.C. § 667(c).
 OSHA COVID-19/Regulations webpage (last viewed 2/24/2021).
 Each of the formerly issued OSHA guidance documents has a banner stating, “Given the evolving nature of the pandemic, OSHA is in the process of reviewing and updating this document. These materials may no longer represent current OSHA recommendations and guidance. For the most up-to-date information, consult Protecting Workers Guidance [which was issued on January 29, 2021 and is discussed below.].”
Virginia’s COVID-19 Workplace Safety Regulation Is Permanent: A National Model
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
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. 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 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.
In the Permanent Standard, “minimal occupational contact” is defined to mean “no or very limited, brief and infrequent contact,” such as remote work, passing in a hallway while six feet apart, and long distance truck driving. § 30. Thus, although most office workspaces would be categorized as lower risk, if employees must even pass in the hallway within six feet of each other, the workplace or task is elevated to the medium exposure level, with its increased program documentation and training requirements. Other examples of the lower exposure levels are single workers behind impermeable clear plastic walls at convenience stores, telecommuting and telework, package delivery “that allows employees to maintain physical distancing from other employees, other persons, and the general public;” and workplaces that have “mandatory physical distancing of employees” from each other and all other persons. Id. Face coverings for employees within the six-foot physical distance parameter does not change the workplace or job task from a “medium” to a “lower” exposure risk level. Id.
The Permanent Standard’s basic requirements for all employers continue be as established in the temporary standard:
Exposure assessment and determination.
Employee notification and access to exposure and medical records.
Return to work policies after being known or suspected to be infected.
Engineering, administrative, and work practice controls, including physical distancing, face coverings, and sanitation and disinfection.
Written infectious disease plans and preparedness plans for all employers unless they only have employees with lower levels of exposure or are a small business (fewer than eleven employees) at the medium exposure level.
The principal changes made by the Permanent Standard include:
While the regulation continues to allow the employer to demonstrate compliance if they comply with equally protective mandatory or non-mandatory CDC guidelines, Virginia’s Commissioner of Labor and Industry must consult with the State Health Commissioner “for advice and technical and before making a determination related to compliance with CDC guidelines.” § 10.E. In addition, an enforcement action cannot be brought against an employer if PPE is not readily available “on commercially reasonable terms” and the employer makes a “good faith effort” to acquire the PPE on such terms. § 10.C.
“Face covering” is now defined to match the more recent CDC guidance, i.e., an item “made of two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric that fits snugly against the sides of the face without any gaps, completely covering the nose and mouth and fitting securely under the chin. Neck gaiters made of two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric, or folded to make two such layers, are considered acceptable face coverings. Face covering shall not have exhalation valves or vents, which allow virus particles to escape, and shall not be made of material that makes it hard to breathe, such as vinyl.” § 30. A face covering must always cover the nose and mouth and extend under the chin. § 40.I. A face covering is always required, at a minimum, if employees have brief contact without six feet of distancing. For example, if employees pass in the hallway within six feet of each other, they must wear face coverings. § 40.H.
While a face shield cannot be considered a substitute for a face covering or any form of PPE except for eye protection, a face shield, meeting certain specifications, may be worn if a face covering cannot be worn “due to medical contraindications.” § 40.J.
Acceptable physical distancing can include an office or another solid floor to ceiling barrier only if “six feet of travel distance is maintained from others around the edges or sides of the wall as well.” § 30.
Redefinition of “signs” and “symptoms” of COVID‑19. “Signs of COVID‑19” include only “medical conditions that can be objectively observed,” such as fever, breathing trouble, cough, vomiting, new confusion, bluish lips or face. § 30. On the other hand, “symptoms of COVID‑19” are medical conditions “that are subjective to the person and not observable to others,” such as chills, fatigue, and new loss of taste or smell. § 30. Persons are “suspected to be infected” if they have signs or symptoms.
Provisions in the temporary regulation requiring that the employer have flexible sick leave policies, consistent with public health guidance, are deleted.
Conforming to changes in CDC guidelines since the temporary standard was issued, the Permanent Standard changes the exposure period requiring notice, to employees, other employers’ employees, and the building or facility owner, of a positive case of a fellow employee, subcontractor, contract employee, or temporary employee “present at the place of employment.” The time period of exposure requiring notice now is from 2 days before through 10 days after symptom onset or a positive test reflecting newer CDC guidance. § 40.B.7.
Employers must contact the Virginia Department of Health “when the worksite has had two or more confirmed cases of COVID‑19 of its own employees present at the place of employment within a 14-day period testing positive for [the virus] during that 14-day time period.” § 40.B.7.d. This report must be made within 24 hours of the employer’s knowledge and additional cases must continue to be reported “until the local health department has closed the outbreak.”
Employers generally can no longer rely on a test-based strategy for return to work after an employee has been infected. Instead, symptomatic employees can return 10 days after symptom onset, if they are fever-free for 24 hours and respiratory symptoms have improved. § 40.C.1. However, employees with “severe illness” “may warrant extending duration of isolation for up to 20 days after symptom onset” and employees “who are severely immunocompromised may require testing to determine when they can return to work.” The employer “shall consider consultation with infection control experts” and VOSH will identify severe illnesses and severe immunocompromised conditions. Id.
Employers can rely only on an RT-PCR test for viral RNA to determine that an asymptomatic employee is a known infected person who must be excluded from work for 10 days after the date of the first positive test. § 6.
Employers must pay, or have their health insurance plans pay, for the cost of testing “for return to work determinations;” however, such testing is not required except in the case of the severely immunocompromised. § 40.C.3.
A new “hierarchy of hazard controls” is required when multiple employees are occupying a vehicle for work purposes, but. First, the employer must attempt to eliminate the need to share vehicles. § 40.F. If sharing of vehicles must occur, the employer must provide respiratory protection, such as N95 respirators, instead of face masks, unless the employer can show that PPE is not “readily available” for those outside of the health care and first responder workplaces.
More detailed requirements are provided for ventilation systems when job tasks or hazards are at very high or high levels of exposure (§ 50.B) or at medium levels of exposure (§ 60.B).
As provided in the temporary standard, except for lower levels of exposures and small business at medium levels, employers must have a written Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan (the “Plan”). The Permanent Standard adds that those Plans must address “situations where employees work during higher risk activities involving potentially large numbers of people or enclosed work areas such as at large social gatherings, … parties, restaurants, bars, hotels, … movie theaters, rest stops, airports, bus stations, train stations, … airplanes, etc.” § 70.C.3.a.(4). The Plan also must, consistent with privacy laws, address individual risk factors for severe disease, including age. at § 70.C.3.b.
Extensive training and documentation of training continues to be required for all employees, except if they are only at a lower level of exposure. § 80.A. The Permanent Standard clarifies that such training must include: any CDC guidelines or Virginia guidance documents being relied upon in lieu of a specific provision in the Permanent Standard (§ 80.B.2.); risk factors for severe illness, including “advancing age” (§ 80.B.5.); strategies for extending use of PPE when it is in short supply (§ 80.B.8.f.); heat-related illness prevention, including when using PPE and face coverings (§ 80.B.8.g.); and additional methods for employee-specific training certification for all those at high or very high exposure levels (§ 80.G.).
For employees only at the lower level of exposure, training requirements are not as rigorous, but now must include the “benefits of wearing face coverings.” § 80.G.5.
The Permanent Standard provides that although an employee cannot be retaliated against for wearing a face covering that meets the requirements of the Standard and does not create a hazard, an employer can still “establish . . . and enforc[e] legally permissible dress code or similar requirements addressing the exterior appearance of [PPE] or face coverings.” § 90.B.
The Permanent Standard continues to allow employees to raise “a reasonable concern” to the employer, its agent, other employees, a government agency, or “to the public such as through print, online, social, or any other media,” thus making an employer potentially liable for a VOSH citation for enforcing its internal publication policies and procedures. See 90.C.
The Permanent Standard concludes by stating that it does not “limit an employer from refusing to do work or enter a location because of a reasonable fear of illness or death,” except pursuant to 16VAC25-60-110.
The Governor’s announcement of the Permanent Standard described VOSH’s enforcement approach. Upon receiving a complaint, VOSH will work with the employer to resolve the issue without an investigation. If VOSH has serious concerns or the employer is subject to multiple complaints, VOSH will open a formal investigation leading to citations or other enforcement action. To date, less than 1% of all complaints have been formally investigated, and less than one-third of those formally investigated have received a citation.
As the COVID‑19 workplace safety standard longest in effect, the Virginia standard has served as a model for other State-plan States and for the Biden Administration. Indeed, in his February 4, 2021, Senate confirmation hearing for the position of Secretary of Labor, he praised the Virginia Permanent Standard. If OSHA issues its own emergency temporary standard, it likely will have many of the elements in the Virginia Permanent Standard, which arise from, but significantly expand standard elements long found in U.S. OSHA guidance.
For more information or advice on the Virginia COVID‑19 Permanent Standard, 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.
 All citations are to subsections of the Permanent Standard at 16VAC25-220, unless otherwise specified.
Biden Administration Confirms COVID-19 Liability Protections for Federal Contractors, Employees and Volunteers
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
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
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
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.
EPA Retains Existing Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter
By Allison A. Torrence
On December 7, 2020, EPA completed its five-year review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”) for Particulate Matter (“PM”), a criteria air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. In a final action set to be published in the Federal Register in the coming days, EPA decided to retain the current NAAQS for PM, which have been in place since 2012.
PM is measured in two categories:
- Fine particles, or PM2.5, which are particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers and smaller; and
- Coarse particles, or PM10, which are particles with a diameters between 2.5 and 10 micrometers.
PM2.5, emitted from numerous sources including power plants, vehicle exhaust, and fires, is generally the more significant health concern, as it has been linked to serious respiratory disease, increased mortality rates, and recent studies have even linked a history of PM2.5 exposure to increased COVID-19 mortality rates.
The Clean Air Act requires EPA to set both primary and secondary NAAQS for PM2.5 and PM10. Primary NAAQS must be set at levels that will protect public health and secondary NAAQS must be set at levels that will protect public welfare. All NAAQS must be reviewed by EPA every five years. EPA has regulated PM emissions through the NAAQS since 1971, and revised the PM NAAQS four times since then—in 1987,1997, 2006 and 2012.
The current primary and secondary NAAQS for PM are as follows:
According to EPA data, there are currently 16 counties in the U.S. currently in nonattainment of the primary PM2.5 NAAQS and 23 counties currently in nonattainment of the primary PM10 NAAQS.
EPA’s decision to keep the existing PM NAAQS comes despite warnings from its own scientists. Notably, in the Policy Assessment for the Review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter, one of the technical documents used by EPA in support of its final decision, EPA scientists concluded that:
“When taken together, we reach the conclusion that the available scientific evidence, air quality analyses, and the risk assessment…can reasonably be viewed as calling into question the adequacy of the public health protection afforded by the combination of the current annual and 24-hour primary PM2.5 standards.”
This Policy Assessment also states that under the current PM2.5 standards, long-term PM2.5 exposures are estimated to be associated with as many as 45,000 total deaths per year. However, the Policy Assessment also noted certain uncertainties and limitations in the evidence and risk assessments that could lead the agency to decide to keep the existing standards.
EPA received over 60,000 public comments on the PM NAAQS proposal, which was closely watched by environmentalists and industry alike. Because of this close public interest, this may be an issue that will be reviewed sooner than the normal five-year review once the Biden Administration begins in 2021. As always, we will keep you updated on any further developments at the Corporate Environmental Lawyer.
California OSHA Issues Comprehensive and Demanding COVID-19 Emergency Regulation
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
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.