California workplace safety regulators voted to revise and re-adopt emergency COVID-19 standards on Thursday to protect employees from the spread of the virus at work.
After minimal discussion among board members, Cal/OSHA voted 6-1 Thursday to re-adopt and update workplace standards related to COVID-19. The requirements, which include some key revisions for fully vaccinated workers, will take effect on Jan. 14, 2022, and remain in place for 90 days.
Under the revised rules, fully vaccinated, asymptomatic workers who come in contact with someone who tested positive will be required to stay home unless they wear a mask and social distance in the workplace for 14 days. The change marks a reversal of previous Cal/OSHA guidance issued in June that allowed vaccinated employees to be exempted from all precautions if exposed to COVID-19 but showed no symptoms.
The board’s revised guidelines also removed exemptions for certain testing requirements applying to fully vaccinated, asymptomatic individuals. Under the updated rules, employers are required to make COVID-19 testing available at no cost to all exposed employees, including those who are fully vaccinated and not showing COVID-19 symptoms.
Before the board’s vote, Eric Berg, Cal/OSHA’s deputy chief of health and research and standards, said these revisions ensure workers stay safe as new variants, such as delta and omicron, continue to emerge and pose a threat to workplace safety.
“Workers have a right to protection in the workplace,” Berg said. “And the [Emergency Temporary Standard] provides these protections against one of the greatest workplace hazards we have seen since the establishment of Cal/OSHA nearly 50 years ago.”
Several industry representatives, however, urged the board to reconsider adoption of the ETS before Thursday’s vote, including several agricultural officials.
When addressing the board, Matthew Allen from the Western Growers Association said he and other agriculturalists were concerned about re-adopting the ETS because of the revisions applying to vaccinated workers.
“We are concerned about the secondary adoption of the ETS, and more significantly concerned that we are discounting the value of vaccinated employees in the workplace,” Allen said.
However, several other commenters urged the board to enact these standards to protect workers from the risk of exposure, especially as the threat of the transmissible omicron variant looms.
Jassy Grewal, legislative director for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Western States Council, pressed the board to adopt the standard to protect the 180,000 frontline workers the union represents. Since June 2021, Grewal said the UFCW had seen an 11% increase in deaths among grocery workers and a 17% increase in workplace infections.
“We are not out of this pandemic,” Grewal told the board. “Our workers are still dying and falling ill from this pandemic, from this virus.”
Revisions to Cal/OSHA’s workplace safety requirements come just days after state health officials resurrected an indoor mask mandate as COVID-19 cases are on the rise. During a press briefing Monday, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said cases have risen 47% across the state since Thanksgiving.
Under the state mandate, masks are required in all workplaces “regardless of whether they serve the public,” according to the California Department of Public Health.
The state’s mask mandate is scheduled to remain in place until Jan. 15, which nearly coincides with the start date of Cal/OSHA’s revised guidelines on Jan. 14.