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Cal/OSHA responds to workers’ call for safety precautions

Ruling sets in motion swift process to stop COVID-19 illness in workplaces

OW Staff Writer | 9/24/2020, midnight

The Cal/OSHA Standards Board voted unanimously to develop stronger rules to protect workers in all industries from COVID-19 in the workplace, responding to a petition submitted by a coalition of workers and advocates urging the body to take emergency action as workplaces have become ground zero in the fight against COVID-19. Recognizing the urgency of the threat in workplaces statewide, the vote sets in place an unusually swift state rule-making process that will enable Cal/OSHA to take faster and tougher enforcement action to keep workers safe from workplace spread. 

From meat processing, to the garment industry, to grocery stores, to fast food, the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces is more than a devastating headline. Workers in low-income jobs, immigrants and workers of color have borne the brunt of these deaths.

“Policymakers today heard the voice of vulnerable California workers demanding safety and accountability,” said Stephen Knight, executive director of Worksafe, an organization dedicated to promoting and protecting the basic right of all people to a safe and healthy workplace. “We have all seen the grim statistics and the disproportionate burden of disease that has been put on communities of color and working communities. This is another face of exploitation and disregard for workers’ humanity. We can and must do better. With the approval of this petition, California now has the opportunity to develop strong new protections to stem the tide of workplace-spread COVID-19.”

California workers and advocates called upon the Cal/OSHA Standards Board to develop stronger rules to protect them from COVID-19 in the workplace. Specifically, they submitted Petition 583 to urge the Standards Board to develop an emergency temporary standard (ETS) tailored to COVID-19 hazards. At today’s meeting, the Board heard from the public and approved the petition.  The decision means the agency will move forward to adopt an emergency standard as soon as November, an unprecedented action that meets the urgency of the moment. 

“We need a standard that uses California COVID-19 infection data to apply the strongest protective measures where infections are most common,” said Ramon Castellblanch, professor emeritus, Health Education, San Francisco State.  “For example, data from L.A. County’s Department of Public Health show that many of the county’s warehouses and food-processing and apparel plants have been the sites of super-spreader events, i.e., outbreaks of 50 or more workers. In developing a California standard, addressing the high risks of such worksites should be given special attention.” 

Adopting an emergency regulation means employers will have more specific direction on steps they must take to protect workers from virus spread. It also means Cal/OSHA will have a more powerful tool, compared to today’s guidance, to enforce safety rules and hold employers accountable. 

“For the first seven months of this pandemic, putting food on the table has meant a daily fight for your very life for the lowest wage workers in our state,” said David Huerta, president of the Service Employees International Union - United Service Workers West. “Today’s decision means workers will soon have the backing of Cal/OSHA in their fight for the basic protections like masks, distancing, ventilation, training, and other basic precautions against the threatening virus. This is a powerful step toward justice for workers in the lowest-wage jobs and communities of color for whom going to work has too often meant having to risk your life.”

Many occupational health and safety organizations, labor unions, worker centers, community groups, and environmental organizations support an emergency temporary standard.

More information is available at: https://worksafe.org/covid/action.html