Seven weeks late, advocates urge immediate adoption and enforcement of recently submitted Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) from OSHA
(April 28, 2021) -- Today, on Workers’ Memorial Day, Oxfam and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) delivered a letter to President Joe Biden and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. 200 health and safety experts, advocates and organizations are urging immediate approval and enforcement of the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) issued by OSHA this week, to ensure workplaces take necessary measures to protect frontline workers from COVID-19.
The letter notes that President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety on January 21, shortly after inauguration, recognizing that frontline essential workers are in grave danger due to the workplace risks posed by COVID-19. The Executive Order directed OSHA to assess the need for and, if necessary, issue an ETS by March 15, 2021. Seven weeks later, OSHA has finally submitted a draft, which advocates say must be appropriately specific and enforceable in order to protect frontline and essential workers.
“We are encouraged that OSHA has responded to urgent calls for action and has submitted a draft standard, but workers have been waiting far too long. People are still contracting the virus, still taking it home—and still dying. They need the government to require employers to implement meaningful safety measures now – not half steps that are mostly for show,” said Alexandre Galimberti, Senior US Advocacy Advisor for Oxfam America.
Since last month’s deadline, the national rates of new cases and hospitalizations are going up; all while recommended safety guidelines are being relaxed by Governors in multiple states. Thousands of healthcare workers have died, and hundreds of thousands have been infected. Many other industries, including restaurants, construction, and manufacturing, continue to see outbreaks.
"I became very sick from work. I thought that I was going to die. Our bosses always tell us, if you don’t like it, there’s the door. If we get sick, they just replace us on our shift,” said Maritza Alarcon, a hotel housekeeper from Massachusetts. "There’s a lot that employers can do. We know how to do the work. They should sit down with us and make a plan. But they won’t do it unless they are required to."
The food processing and farming industries have seen outsized infection rates, with reports of repeat outbreaks as employees continue to work without proper distancing and with uneven access to information and protective equipment.
“Make no mistake, this disease is ravaging historically marginalized populations already facing challenges in the form of low wages, inadequate healthcare, and crowded conditions. They’re the ones doing the work where rates are highest, from crowded poultry plants to hot kitchens to strawberry fields,” says Galimberti. “A disproportionate number of these workers are Black or Latinx or undocumented immigrants. This is a worker rights issue, but it’s also a civil rights issue. Employers will take advantage of workers unless we make it illegal for them to do so.”
“Vaccines alone won’t end this pandemic,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH. “COVID-19 is still present and still spreading in our workplaces. Because workers go home at the end of their shifts, we know that when workers are exposed on the job, they can bring infections home to our neighborhoods and communities.”
“Smart, science-based workplace standards – with rigorous enforcement and full worker involvement – will reduce risk and save lives,” said Martinez.
Experts emphasize that vaccination alone is not enough to secure worker and community safety. Immediate mandatory workplace controls remain a necessity if workers are to be properly protected, and they remain a critical element in the battle against COVID-19.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” says Galimberti. “We can do better. With every passing day, workers’ lives are lost, and their communities remain at risk.”