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Labor unions sue OSHA over lack of infectious disease standard


A coalition of labor unions representing education, health care and municipal workers on Thursday sued the U.S. Secretary of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over the lack of a standard to protect workers from infectious diseases.

The suit, filed in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco by the American Federation of Teachers; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Washington State Nurses Association; and the United Nurses Association of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, documents years of delays in creating a standard that would provide employers with guidance on handling infectious disease outbreaks.

The plaintiffs, claiming to have asked OSHA to create a standard more than a decade ago, wrote that the federal appeals court is “authorized to issue writs of mandamus” to “compel agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed.” The unions asked that the court “require OSHA to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking for the standard within 90 days of the Court’s mandamus order and to proceed on a priority, expedited basis to promptly issue a standard.”

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, infectious diseases caused 1.7 million health care-associated infections every year in the United States,” the suit states. “These infections are dangerous, and some can be fatal (e.g., tuberculosis, bacterial meningitis, or Ebola). OSHA acknowledged this risk and began the rulemaking process to issue a responsive standard.”

As of 2016, “OSHA was on the verge of issuing the necessary standard and projected its completion in 2017. Instead, after a change in administration, OSHA shelved the rulemaking altogether and has refused to carry out its statutory obligations – even in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century, which conservative estimates show has infected over 190,000 health care workers in the United States and claimed more than 770 of their lives. OSHA’s decade-long delay is unreasonable and unlawful,” the suit states.

A Department of Labor spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail Friday that “the Department is committed to protecting America’s workers during the pandemic, and OSHA has been working around the clock to that end.”

The spokeswoman pointed to a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit that “concluded that OSHA acted reasonably when it determined that a new emergency temporary standard was not needed at this time.”

“Since that court ruling, OSHA has continued to rely on its preexisting authorities in order to keep America’s workplaces safe,” she wrote. “To date, OSHA has issued 144 citations relating to coronavirus. Together those citations have resulted in over $2,025,431 in penalties. The Department will respond to this most recent lawsuit through the appropriate legal processes.”

More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here