The failure to keep working people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the devastating loss of life, severe illness and life-altering changes for everyone affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, tens of millions of workers have been infected and hundreds of thousands have died; working people are facing serious, life-threatening conditions and will continue to battle chronic conditions as a result of COVID-19 infections.
Workplace exposures, where workers spend an extended time around co-workers or the public, often in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces with few control measures, have been a major source of COVID-19 cases nationwide. Exposures to COVID-19 in the workplace are preventable and are inextricably linked to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 throughout the country. Workers need strong safety measures in our workplaces to be protected from the coronavirus and to prevent bringing it home to our families and communities.
Throughout the pandemic, essential workers have continued to provide the services we all depend on—health care and first response, food supply, transportation, essential goods, jails and prisons—but without the necessary protections to keep themselves safe at work and many have died. Health care workers and systems have been overwhelmed with a surge of sick patients, resource shortages and daunting work schedules.
COVID-19 exposures and illnesses disproportionately impacts individuals in low-wage jobs, who may also work multiple jobs, and people of color. Additionally, these workers often have the lowest vaccination rates for other diseases and are at risk of being among the last to receive the COVID-19 vaccine if distribution plans do not address access and equity issues, combined with adequate workplace safety protections that prevent exposures.
The Trump administration made the situation much worse: it neglected the health of the nation and left working people with no protections. It refused to issue emergency workplace safety standards. It refused to centralize the supply and distribution of critical respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE), medical equipment, testing and vaccines that would have allocated them to those at greatest risk, instead leaving individual states, localities, health care facilities, and other workplaces and workers to fend on our own. There was no focus on ensuring access to the adequate levels of protections that would keep workers safe from a highly contagious virus spread through airborne transmission. Critical PPE, including respirators, still have not been adequately provided to workers in high-risk occupations who desperately need them.
The Trump administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the agencies responsible for protecting workers’ safety and health, were missing in action. From the beginning of the pandemic, hospital associations, meat processing and other employers fought strongly against emergency standards and stronger safety guidelines, so they would be free to adopt any practices and procedures as they saw fit, leaving workers without any agency oversight.
In the absence of federal OSHA action, state OSHA plans and many other state authorities issued protections. In 2020, state OSHA plans in California, Oregon and Michigan issued a COVID-19 emergency temporary standard (ETS) to protect workers in these states; and Virginia, the first state in the country to issue an ETS this past summer, subsequently issued a permanent COVID-19 standard in January 2021. The labor movement has been key to winning these protections and in educating and mobilizing workers to organize directly in our workplaces to win stronger safety protections and protect against retaliation for workers raising safety concerns and for protecting themselves when employers did not.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 guidelines continue to be a major problem and significant barrier to winning stronger workplace safety protections. Weak CDC guidelines have given license to health departments and health care facilities to roll back necessary levels of protection to unacceptable levels for health care workers taking care of COVID-19 patients, as well as guidance for other high-risk, essential industries. Employers are citing CDC guidelines, that also are not enforceable, to claim that workers are being protected; however, major workplace outbreaks are evidence these claims are not true and the guidelines do not represent the most current scientific evidence on protections needed from small, inhaled, airborne particles of the virus. Therefore, employers have implemented the lowest levels of protection and have provided no PPE, or inadequate PPE, rather than limiting exposures and providing the best protection possible under the current circumstances.
Looking forward, variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, are spreading throughout many areas of the United States that will remain largely unvaccinated throughout the year and will disproportionately affect people who must go to work in person. The risk of transmission increases with additional variant spread, and millions more workers will become infected, and many will continue to die. The toll of long-term complications from COVID-19 is likely to be significant. If our nation does not act quickly and change course under the Biden administration, the situation will become even more dire.
Strong, swift action by the Biden administration, including an immediate Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, has already resulted in stronger federal guidelines. However, more robust actions are needed to ensure that workers are provided the protections necessary to combat this virus in U.S. workplaces, keeping our communities safe as well.
- Issue OSHA and MSHA emergency temporary standards to protect workers from COVID-19, enforce these standards, and ensure expansion of ETS coverage to public sector, transportation and agricultural workers. The standards must require prevention measures that address airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2, like ventilation and strong respiratory protection. Federal OSHA and MSHA and state OSHA plans must enforce these new emergency standards, as well as respiratory protection and other existing standards. OSHA and MSHA inspectors must be equipped with their own PPE and COVID-19 training during workplace inspections so they are safe while protecting others at work. After emergency protections are issued, OSHA must reinitiate promulgation of its permanent infectious disease standard so that workers are protected from major diseases in the future.
- Strengthen CDC, OSHA and MSHA guidelines to reflect the most updated science, including airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2. All COVID-19 guidelines must recommend measures that prevent occupational exposure to airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2, in addition to contact and droplet routes of transmission. Ensure that employer policies do not allow COVID-19 infected or exposed workers to remain in the workplace where they can spread the virus, regardless of symptoms. Set clear thresholds and definitions for crisis conditions so that appropriate protections are not withheld in the name of shortages that fluctuate.
- Utilize the Defense Production Act to federalize and centralize the allocation, distribution and manufacture of personal protective equipment, medical supplies, testing, and vaccines. Work more efficiently through states and cities and involve, communicate and coordinate with unions and employers to assess and determine needs. Prohibit price gouging of PPE and other needed supplies and equipment by manufacturers and distributors so that states and other purchasers do not have to compete against each other. Prioritize the transparent distribution of equipment to locations and facilities where supplies are limited and cases are surging.
- Expand the use of available respiratory protection and focus on production of reusable respirators. Respirators that are stored by employers and the Strategic National Stockpile must be immediately released for use by workers exposed to COVID-19. Immediately expand the use of powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) and elastomeric half mask respirators (EHMRs) to protect workers across industries. This equipment provides better protection and is more cost-efficient than disposable filtering facepiece respirators (such as N95s) and this equipment can be easily disinfected and can be reused. Parts and processes for producing PAPRs and EHMRs are available from domestic supply chains and facilities. Prohibit extended use of disposable respirators, a practice that puts workers in serious danger and provides only false protection.
- Require the recording and immediate reporting of all confirmed and suspected worker COVID-19 infections to local and state health departments for immediate transmittal to CDC, OSHA and MSHA. Ensure industry and occupation information are reported for COVID-19 cases and vaccine recipients. Ensure this aggregate information is publicly available and informs key policy changes. Federal OSHA must strengthen injury and illness recording and reporting for COVID-19, including the recording of worker exposures to COVID-19 and the presumption that COVID-19 is a work-related illness for accurate and proactive reporting.
- Protect all workers from retaliation for taking safety actions to be protected from COVID-19 on the job. Federal and state governments must issue emergency orders or interpretations of existing laws to make it illegal for employers or any party to retaliate against or fire workers for ensuring our right to be provided safety protections from COVID-19. These include raising safety and health concerns and wearing our own PPE when employers do not provide adequate protection.
- Prioritize vaccines for essential workers. Industries and workplaces that have had uncontrolled outbreaks have disproportionately impacted people of color and the lowest-paid workers. People who must show up to the workplace during the pandemic are at the greatest risk of COVID-19 exposures and must be prioritized in vaccine distribution. There must be strong messaging by the government, employers and unions that vaccines are part of a comprehensive workplace safety approach so that workplace safety standards and prevention measures are still required even after workers are vaccinated.
- Organize workers to improve workplace safety and health conditions. Ensure that workers have the right to speak up and demand stronger safety and health protections through collective action to improve our working conditions. Under the law, every worker deserves the right to a safe workplace; however, workers are not always afforded that right and threats to collective bargaining undermines enforcement of safety and health hazards. Workers must be able to take direct action in our workplaces to ensure our employers are keeping us safe on the job.