Oregon OSHA says employers must protect workers from COVID-19

By Don McIntosh

Oregon workers finally have the right to be protected from COVID-19, thanks to a new temporary Oregon OSHA rule that took effect the week of Nov. 2 after months of pressure from the Oregon AFL-CIO and other labor organizations. The detailed 12-page rule isn’t everything labor leaders hoped for, but it’s a start.

Oregon is only the third state to require specific action by employers to protect workers from the coronavirus. Virginia adopted protections in July, and Michigan followed in October. Even though COVID-19 has killed more workers in less time than any other health emergency, federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has refused to require employers to take any specific action to protect workers, saying that employers’ “general duty” to maintain a safe workplace under the law is enough.

Oregon’s new rule covers:

  • Personal Protective Equipment For indoor workplaces, employers must provide masks, face coverings, or face shields to all workers, ensure that they use them, and make sure they can work at least 6 feet away from others where feasible. The mask requirements also apply when workers are in vehicles for work, or when they’re working outdoors if they must be within 6 feet of others.
  • Notification Employers most notify workers within 24 hours after they learn that there has been a workplace exposure.
  • Ventilation Within two months, employers must maximize the amount of outside air circulated through existing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, to the extent the system is capable of doing so, whenever employees are in the workplace.
  • Sanitizing Employers must regularly clean or sanitize all common areas, shared equipment, and high-touch surfaces used by employees or the public.
  • Risk assessment Within a month, all employers must conduct a COVID-19 exposure risk assessment—with participation and feedback from employees—via a safety meeting, safety committee, supervisor, or other process negotiated with a union.
  • Training Within six weeks, employers must train workers on how to prevent COVID-19’s spread in the workplace and how to report if there are signs and symptoms of the disease.
  • Posting Employers must post the COVID-19 Hazards Poster.

In an Oct. 27 press conference, Oregon AFL-CIO President Graham Trainor said the new rules will make a difference in worker safety. It follows lengthy advocacy from nurse, grocery, and other unions. If it took seven months, that’s because Oregon OSHA conducted a really thorough process, with months of listening sessions, Trainor said. The Oregon AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions helped mobilize hundreds of workers to submit testimony. But Trainor said still stronger rules are needed, particularly for workers in corrections, agriculture, and food processing. A September outbreak at Pacific Seafood in Warrenton infected 94 workers.

One farmworker who’d been scheduled to take part in the press conference proved to be a case in point—she was unable to attend after testing positive for COVID-19, Trainor said.

MK Fletcher, a Health & Safety Specialist at the national AFL-CIO, said Oregon has been more transparent than other states about workplace outbreaks. According to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), as of Oct. 28, a total of 8,172 Oregon workers had contracted the virus on the job, and 35 of them have died from it. COVID-19 infections resulting from workplace outbreaks now account for nearly 20% of current reported cases in Oregon.

As of Oct. 28 there were active outbreaks under way at 76 Oregon workplaces. The biggest were at correctional institutions and food processing facilities. State prisons in Ontario, Pendleton, Umatilla and Salem were four of the top five current hotspots, totaling 1,188 cases as of Oct. 28. Potato processor Lamb Weston plants in Hermiston and Boardman, the Amazon warehouse in Troutdale, and the Walmart Distribution Center in Hermiston were also in the top 10.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise, and if the new OSHA rules are to have an impact, employers will have to return to greater vigilance. Matt Calzia, a registered nurse on staff at the Oregon Nurses Association, warned that nurses have been seeing their employers adopting a more cavalier attitude as the pandemic wears on.

BECOME A SAFETY STEWARD:  See the complete rule (hopefully) at osha.oregon.gov/covid19

1 Comment

  1. I am concerned s I service children for speech and language. This cannot be done with a mask on either myself or the students. The students age from K-6. I do not have underlying health conditions but I am 60 years old not in the best physical shape.

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