Labor Department taking over workplace safety oversight from 3 states

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Oct. 19 that it is moving to relieve Utah, Arizona and South Carolina of their workplace safety oversight because of failure to adopt stricter COVID-19 protection policies, according to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Federal officials said the three states did not adopt, at minimum, the federal COVID-19 workplace safety plans for healthcare, which OSHA released in June, the newspapers reported.

The plans, released as an emergency temporary standard, applied to healthcare settings where suspected or confirmed coronavirus patients are treated, including hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as home healthcare and ambulatory care settings. The standard included a requirement that healthcare employers provide workers with paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover from side effects, among other safety measures related to the pandemic.

"OSHA has worked in good faith to help these three state plans come into compliance," Jim Frederick, the agency's acting director, said on a conference call, according to The New York Times. "But their continued refusal is a failure to maintain their state plan commitment to thousands of workers in their state."

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said in a statement that the Industrial Commission of Arizona notified OSHA on July 16 that certain Arizona laws already complied with the emergency temporary standard and asked the agency for confirmation of this assertion and waivers of certain portions of the standard.

"OSHA finally issued ICA a response stating the agency was not in compliance and demanding immediate adoption of the full ETS. ICA promptly responded on Sept. 21 stating it would pursue the rulemaking process, which allows for and encourages public input, to review the mandate," the governor said.

Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox said in a statement that the state earlier notified OSHA that the emergency temporary standard "would place an unfair burden on the healthcare industry" and noted that Utah does not have regulatory authority to require employers to pay their employees sick leave.

"We reject the assertion that Utah's state plan is less effective than the federal plan," he said in the statement, which was shared with Becker's. "While we have not refused to adopt standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration, we will ask once again for an opportunity to engage with the Biden administration about our legitimate concerns."

In a separate statement shared with Becker's, Emily H. Farr, director of South Carolina's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, expressed disappointment about OSHA's decision and said South Carolina's plan "is built on a foundation of passion and commitment to the safety of the state's employees as well as a strong partnership with employers, industry and community leaders, and interest groups and associations to ensure the same."

She added, "This commitment and partnership have proven effective as South Carolina has consistently had one of the lowest injury and illness rates in the nation with the latest rate of 2.4 for 2019. This is below the national average of 2.8."

National Nurses United, the nation's largest union of registered nurses, praised the steps being taken by OSHA. 

In a news release, Deborah Burger, RN, union president, said Arizona, South Carolina and Utah "had the duty — legally and morally — to come into compliance and protect workers."

"They did not, and we could not be more proud that OSHA is standing up to hold them accountable," said Ms. Burger. 

A fact sheet from OSHA says the agency will publish a separate federal register notice for each of the OSHA-approved workplace safety and health programs operated by the three states announcing the proposal to reconsider and
revoke final approval in that state. OSHA will provide for a 35-day comment period on the proposed revocation.


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