May 26, 2021
California COVID-19 work rules to be revised after farm groups’ concerns

Revised rules governing COVID-19 precautions in California’s workplaces have been sent back for changes that are due this week, after farm groups and others raised objections.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, acting on the advice of staff, agreed to table consideration of updated Emergency Temporary Standards governing how employers must mitigate COVID-19 risks and respond to positive cases in the workplace.

The board acted in light of recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to the effect that people vaccinated against COVID-19 need not wear masks in most cases.

The Cal/OSHA board adopted the original emergency temporary standards, or ETS, in November 2020. The ETS requires employers to develop a written COVID-19 prevention program or incorporate its elements into an Injury and Illness Prevention Program. This includes identifying and correcting COVID-19 hazards; maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet unless the nature of the work makes this impossible; requiring masks; procedures to investigate and respond to COVID-19 cases and outbreaks at the workplace; and clear communication with employees about all of those activities.

During the online board meeting last week, Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau director of employment policy and chief operating officer of the affiliated Farm Employers Labor Service, said that science and events are moving too fast for the Cal/OSHA emergency standards to keep up. Indeed, three days before the meeting, the state had announced a full reopening as of June 15, with nearly all capacity and social-distancing requirements lifted.

“We appreciate that the Standards Board is considering revisions to the ETS that recognize, if belatedly, the reality of the availability of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines,” Little said. “However, events have largely overtaken both the November 2020 ETS and this proposed revision.”

Little said Farm Bureau looks forward to working with the Standards Board to come up with a new plan.

“The agency and the Standards Board should seriously reconsider the necessity of any COVID-19 standard, or any infectious-disease standard, outside the context where employees may be exposed in the normal course of their duties, like health care providers and first responders,” he said. “The regulatory process that led to the existing standards clearly illustrated that any regulatory action will be obsolete on the day it became effective.”

As an example, he said, the November 2020 standards make no mention of vaccines, which became available in December.

Little and many others also objected to the standards’ ongoing requirement that N95 respirators be provided to employees.

“A requirement for extensive use of N95 respirators in this context is going to lead to shortages of respirators, as we saw last summer in the context of the ongoing pandemic and the wildfire smoke problems,” Little said.

The requirement, he said, would lead to “denying access to respirators to people that need them immediately because of a variety of different needs.”

For example, state regulations require agricultural employers whose employees work outdoors to provide them with N95 respirators when the air-quality index reaches hazardous levels due to wildfire smoke. N95s also are needed on the farm for tasks such as the application of certain crop-protection materials.

Revised standards are due May 28, to be considered at a special meeting of the Standards Board June 3. The present standards are due to expire Oct. 2, unless the board acts otherwise.

Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau


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