OSHA eliminates indoor mask requirements for vaccinated workers

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The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) board voted Thursday afternoon to revise the emergency temporary standards (ETS) regulating COVID-19 safety in the workplace to align with the California Department of Public Health’s orders that took effect on Tuesday. 

In short, it means fully vaccinated individuals no longer must wear masks in the workplace.  

Minutes after the board’s decision, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order allowing the new standards to take immediate effect instead of after the usual 10-day review period. 

“While I understand the proposal in front of us today is extremely controversial and inconvenient, now, I don’t think, is the time to let our guard down,” said David Harrison, a Cal/OSHA board member, before voting for the revised ETS. “We need to do everything reasonable … within our power, to protect employees in California.” 

Board member Laura Stock was the lone dissenting vote against the revisions. She said she supported the parts of the ETS — originally implemented in November 2020 — that would be retained and also supported the recognition of the vaccine’s effectiveness to end the pandemic. 

“I’m concerned it actually goes too far in rolling back essential protections while the pandemic is still going on,” Stock said, noting the removal of physical distancing requirements in the workplace. “My biggest concern is that we are now putting, you know, most of our eggs in a basket around vaccines, and if vaccines is our primary strategy here, it is critical to ensure and verify who is vaccinated and who isn’t.” 

The revised ETS scraps face covering requirements for all employees when outdoors and allows employers to permit fully vaccinated employees to not wear masks indoors after documenting their vaccination status. 

“People were never really told, ‘Hey you need to keep these because you might need to show someone at some point that you are (vaccinated),’” said David Thomas, the board chair, addressing the issue of self-attestation. 

Public Health still requires face coverings in the event of outbreaks — when there are three or more cases in an exposed group of employees — and where 6-foot physical distancing isn’t possible. 

Though the revised ETS doesn’t require physical distancing and barriers, those preventative measures are required in the event of major outbreaks when 20 or more cases exist among employees. 

“We all want the same thing. What’s very difficult is to figure out what the balance is so that we’re doing the most good for the most people that’s not at all dismissing the vulnerable in our population,” said board member Chris Laszcz-Davis. 

The board reached its decision to align with state Health Department standards following nearly three hours of public comments, staff reports and board deliberations.  

Cal/OSHA Executive Officer Christina Shupe said the revised standards will remain effective for up to seven months, though the board can revise them before they expire. 

“Our expectation is that it will have a 210-day lifespan, which will allow the board to either allow it to stay in place for up to 210 days, at which point you would have to consider a secondary adoption, or as we are doing here, we’re considering revisions early,” Shupe said. 

Under the revised standards, employers cannot retaliate against employees for wearing face masks. Employers are also required to provided approved respirators, such as N-95 masks, for voluntary use to unvaccinated employees who request them. 

In addition to face covering updates, the new standards eliminate testing and quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated employees who have had close contact with COVID-19 cases unless they have symptoms.  

Employers must also “evaluate ventilation systems to maximize outdoor air and increase filtrations efficiency, and evaluate the use of additional air cleaning systems,” according to Cal/OSHA.  

“While we understand the desire not to have requirements in place a day longer than they’re necessary, workers will bear the cost if we end requirements a day sooner than necessary,” said Eric Berg, Cal/OSHA’s deputy chief of health, noting 7,400 COVID-19 workplace outbreaks between January and May of this year. 

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