Cal / OSHA Expands Workplace Safety Precautions As California Indoor Masking Rules Come Into Effect

State workplace safety regulators have changed and re-enacted current rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at work, but Thursday’s decision sets up a bigger showdown next year over whether some of the rules will become permanent and , if so, which ones.

The Cal / OSHA Standards Council voted 6-1 Thursday to re-adopt and update the rules it last approved over the summer in accordance with the state’s scheduled reopening at the time.

The new rules go into effect on January 14 and will be in effect for 90 days. Important changes include the requirement for masking and social distancing for fully vaccinated workers who may have been exposed to the virus on the job. This is a change to the rules adopted over the summer, according to which a fully vaccinated person exposed to a person who tested positive usually did not have to take these precautions.

The new rules “attempt to deal with revolutionary cases,” said Ben Ebbink, labor attorney at Fisher & Phillips LLP who represents the companies, speaking ahead of the vote.

But the masking rules outlined in Cal / OSHA’s extended rules may be moot for the immediate future in light of the new universal indoor mask mandate that went into effect on Wednesday after being released by the Department of Health. public of California. This requirement ends in mid-January but could be extended, especially with the prospect of the omicron variant fueling a winter push in the cases.

In San Francisco, offices and gyms where everyone is fully vaccinated do not need to revert to masking under an exemption granted by the state health department to its masking order. interior.

The counties of Contra Costa, Alameda and Marin will also benefit from exemptions. This means that in those counties, like San Francisco, offices and gyms that house fully vaccinated people will continue to be exempt from masking. Marin will again demand that masks be worn by everyone in stores, restaurants and other non-exempt places.

In a list of frequently asked questions, the department said, “The guidelines apply to all workplaces, whether they serve the public or are open to the public,” appearing to include restaurants and shops. In its own FAQ, Cal / OSHA said its rules require employers to provide face coverings and ensure employees wear them when the state’s health department orders it, adding that the mandate recent is such an order.

The new rules also make some changes when it comes to people who receive ‘exclusion pay’ when they are sick or exposed to the virus. Under rules passed over the summer, fully vaccinated people who had been in close contact with someone who tested positive but did not show symptoms were not eligible to be paid to stay at home.

Fully vaccinated and asymptomatic people can be excluded from work for 14 days, but this is not mandatory if they wear a face covering and stay 6 feet from others for the same period under the updated rules.

People who test positive and unvaccinated people who have been exposed can still be paid to stay home after Thursday’s vote.

What did not change Thursday is the requirement for unvaccinated employees to wear masks at work. And this despite the fact that employers are only required to ask, but not to verify, whether people have been vaccinated.

“It basically enshrines the self-attestation” of whether or not someone is vaccinated, said Mitch Steiger, legislative attorney for the California Federation of Labor, before the vote.

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Thursday’s vote was the second and final re-enactment of a temporary emergency standard to slow the spread of the virus in California workplaces that first went into effect in December last year. Temporary emergency standards can only be re-enacted twice under the law.

The board is now faced with the question of whether to adopt a more permanent standard that would be in place for two years, or consider a management proposal that would take a different approach. The board is considering the proposal, which union groups strongly oppose, and a decision is not expected until the current rules expire in April.

A draft permanent standard which could be adopted largely removes the idea of ​​an exclusion allowance. Steiger said that “will absolutely increase the viral spread” as employees will not be able to afford to stay at home. “We are very concerned that the exclusion allowances will disappear completely,” he said.

Ebbink, the labor lawyer, said he doubted the alternative proposal would have much of a chance of being passed by the board.

This plan would force employers to integrate state and federal health boards into their broader injury and illness prevention plans, instead of waiting for the board to make decisions, which can be a slow process. Ebbink said. “The COVID experience has shown that there is a lot of merit in a more flexible approach,” he said.

During a roundtable after the vote, management representatives stressed the need to create this flexibility as science and the virus itself evolve.

“Regulations apply very differently for different workplaces,” said Rob Moutrie, representing the California Chamber of Commerce and opposing a more permanent standard.

Various management representatives have said relying on more general safety plans that all workplaces are required to have and which can incorporate the latest state and federal health guidelines would help employers follow through. the most recent changes.

But workers’ representatives, including standards council chairman David Thomas, for the most part equated this flexibility with less specific rules that would be much more difficult to enforce.

“Every time we’ve become more flexible, we’ve gone in the wrong direction,” Thomas said, highlighting the state’s summer reopening that some saw as the beginning of the end of the pandemic in California. “When we try to be too flexible, people die.”

Chase DiFeliciantonio is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice

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Susan W. Lloyd