nursing wearing PPE, holding head

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s role in protecting the nation’s long-term care and other workers, and the agency’s preparedness to act in the event of another public health emergency similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, were a focus of a Wednesday hearing of the House of Representatives Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the Education and Labor Committee.

Two standards were a focus of testimony.

OSHA adopted a COVID-19 healthcare emergency temporary standard in June, requiring assisted living communities and other healthcare settings to conduct hazard assessments and have written plans in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. In December, however, OSHA said that it was withdrawing the non-recordkeeping parts of the standard because the agency did not think that it could complete a final rule in a timeframe called for by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

The agency also originally announced a COVID-19 vaccination-and-testing emergency temporary standard in November but later withdrew it following the U.S. Supreme Court’s stay on the issue.

“OSHA faced challenges implementing both standards and withdrew most of their provisions,” testified Thomas Costa, director of education, workforce and income security at the Government Accountability Office.

Two recommendations to OSHA from the GAO related to these standards remain open, Costa said in a report of his testimony.

“GAO recommended in October 2021 that OSHA assess challenges the agency has faced in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and take related action. OSHA partially agreed with this recommendation,” he said. “GAO recommended in January 2021 that OSHA evaluate procedures for ensuring reporting of summary data and develop a plan to remediate deficiencies. OSHA generally agreed with this recommendation.”

Douglas A. Parker, assistant secretary of OSHA, told the subcommittee that OSHA is working to finalize a permanent COVID-19 standard to ensure healthcare workers are protected as long as COVID-19 is a threat.

Since Jan. 20, 2021, he said, OSHA has conducted 1,826 COVID-19-related inspections of healthcare facilities, with an additional 701 inspections conducted by state plans.

“In March 2022, we launched a COVID-19 enforcement initiative focusing on evaluating and

ensuring the readiness of hospitals and skilled nursing care facilities to protect workers in the event of surges in COVID-19 patients,” Parker said.

The agency is working on other rules to improve working conditions for healthcare workers, he said, including developing a heat illness prevention standard. He said OSHA has “obtained input early in the process to help craft a protective and workable rule.”

In other rulemaking endeavors aimed to help healthcare workers, Parker said the agency is looking at the problem of gender and body type disparity in the availability of properly fitted personal protective equipment in the construction industry.

“OSHA expects to propose a rule this year that would ensure PPE actually fits and protects the person wearing it,” Parker testified. “Other rulemaking work includes revisions to injury and illness reporting requirements, hazard communications, powered industrial truck design, and emergency response, among others.”

To boost the agency’s preparedness moving forward, Parker said that OSHA is working to rebuild the agency’s workforce, which he said has record low staffing levels. To that end, he said, OSHA has made more than 270 hires since August, including 156 inspectors and 32 whistleblower investigators.