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Preparing a national safety standard for COVID-19

New leadership in Washington will likely lead to increased regulation of the poultry industry’s response to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically affected the global workplace. As a vitally important critical infrastructure industry – and without a regulation requiring or instructing it – the poultry and egg industries proactively developed infectious disease preparedness and response plans and trained employees.

Following this initial response, the poultry and egg industries continue to work closely with the U.S Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to develop and follow interim guidelines during the pandemic.

A national standard?

A year after the onset of the pandemic, the move to establish state and national standards is underway. State Plan OSHA states, such as Virginia, Oregon, Michigan and California, have enacted state-based emergency temporary standards for COVID-19. Virginia is now in the process of adopting a permanent standard for infectious diseases.

With a new president in place, the development of a National Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) is all but inevitable. An ETS may include standards modeled from Virginia and California's ETS. This would require employer-funded COVID-19 testing during work hours, mandate paid leave and require additional companies to adhere to OSHA’s respiratory protection standard. A national ETS will surely address continued funding and distribution of personal protective equipment.

The speed at which a new standard is created will be based on the incoming leadership at the Department of Labor. As of this writing, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was the new administration’s nominee for Secretary of Labor. In the past, Walsh served in leadership roles in organized labor groups. In his campaign, President Joe Biden said he would support unions and organized labor. This may decrease OSHA's cooperative efforts with industry. Furthermore, the new president promised to double the number of OSHA inspectors and is likely to increase enforcement efforts.

Impacts for the poultry industry

A renewed push for an infectious disease standard will be at the top of OSHA's list. If enacted, a new infectious disease standard may require health facilities and other potential exposure workplaces, like the poultry industry, to implement contagious disease control programs permanently.

The increase in OSHA enforcement activities will focus on OSHA standards for personal protective equipment, respiratory protection, recordkeeping, and the general duty clause. These standards were widely used to protect workers during the pandemic.

Employees will need to be trained on preparedness and response plans to deal with exposures accordingly. Employers nationwide will need to be prepared within the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency to develop even more robust programs to prevent infectious diseases.

By Matthew Spencer

Matthew Spencer is director of HR and safety programs for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. [email protected]

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