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OSHA Virus Emergency Regulation Not Needed, Labor Chief Says

April 23, 2020, 9:19 PM

Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia defended OSHA’s response to the coronavirus crisis and use of existing rules to protect workers instead of issuing a virus-specific regulation.

“We have the tools we need, and will use them if necessary,” said Scalia during a press briefing Thursday.

As of Thursday, OSHA has received about 2,400 complaints about workplace hazards and closed out about 1,400, Loren Sweatt, the deputy assistant secretary with oversight of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said at the briefing.

Sweatt said the total doesn’t include complaints filed with OSHA’s state counterparts.

Before Scalia became labor secretary, he spent much of his legal career in labor law, often challenging or defending OSHA regulations.

Scalia said OSHA’s rule for personal protective equipment, such as N95 respirators, can be used to cite employers for virus-related issues.

He also defended invoking the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to cite employers. The clause requires employers to have workplaces free of known hazards that can be feasibly mitigated. OSHA uses the clause to cite employers when there isn’t a specific rule for the alleged hazard.

“It’s applicable, and we’ll use it as appropriate,” said the secretary about the general duty clause.

The clause is often criticized by industry attorneys for requiring employers to prevent hazards they may not be unaware of.

Guide and Advise

Scalia and Sweatt also pointed to OSHA guidance documents offering advice to employers on how to protect workers from virus exposure.

OSHA has released about 15 directives and guides covering a range of concerns from acceptable use of N95 respirators to recommendations to manufacturers.

Sweatt said more information is on the way, including best practices for meat processors and curb-side delivery services.

Since late January, Democratic lawmakers have unsuccessfully pushed for OSHA to issue a temporary emergency standard covering health-care workers and others employees whose jobs have a high degree of potential exposure.

In a separate Thursday press briefing, worker advocate Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said OSHA’s worker protection efforts have failed.

“The result is the disaster we see playing out,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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