Inside OSHA

January 21, 2022


Attorneys say the Supreme Court’s stay of OSHA’s COVID-19 vaccine standard both forces the agency to use the general duty clause as its primary tool to enforce pandemic safety measures, and creates new hurdles for those efforts -- though it could also open the door to a separate rule based on the emergency temporary standard (ETS) for healthcare workers.

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Environmentalists and work-safety groups are ramping up pressure on OSHA to expedite a heat exposure standard, including through a new study that says high heat conditions, exacerbated by climate change, could lead to as much as $55.4 billion in lost wages annually by 2065 without new workplace protections or greenhouse gas reductions.

Observers say the Supreme Court decision blocking OSHA’s COVID-19 emergency temporary standard (ETS) could chill the future development of safety standards and ease challenges to its rulemakings, especially if the agency attempts to craft "holistic" policies for new dangers.

OSHA is raising its civil penalties for violations of the OSH Act and regulatory standards by 6.2 percent to account for inflation -- the largest such adjustment in recent memory and one industry attorneys are warning could lead to an even sharper spike in total fines as the agency looks to step up enforcement action across the board.

The Supreme Court’s Jan. 13 order blocking enforcement of the OSHA emergency temporary standard for COVID-19 vaccination is drawing strident responses from all political corners.

The Supreme Court’s decision blocking implementation of OSHA’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-test emergency temporary standard (ETS) holds that the economy-wide rule is too broad to fit within the agency’s authority to regulate “occupational safety,” but also provides a roadmap for more targeted limits that could survive judicial review.

The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) appears to be raising the bar for rejecting employers’ appeals of OSHA enforcement actions when they miss litigation deadlines or otherwise fail to follow required procedures, holding in a new order that appellants must be allowed to show a “good faith effort” at participating in proceedings.

Observers on all sides expect the Supreme Court to stay implementation of OSHA’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing standard in the coming days, leaving many employers uncertain on how to move forward after its first compliance deadline arrived on Jan. 10, especially as OSHA has yet to act on requests for extensions -- including from the Postal Service.

OSHA has quietly resumed development of an emergency response standard intended to bolster protections for first responders after pausing the process late in the Obama administration, but stakeholders are warning that the eventual rule may exclude much of the sector as it is dominated by public-sector and volunteer workers outside OSHA’s purview.

Conservative Supreme Court justices appeared to doubt OSHA’s authority to issue its COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing emergency temporary standard (ETS), with several questioning whether Congress could have foreseen situations like the current pandemic when it wrote the OSH Act, and others asking if the standard is truly necessary to fight the coronavirus.