Small Biz Panel Shoots Down OSHA Infectious Disease Proposal

By Roy Maurer Feb 2, 2015
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A panel representing the interests of small businesses has recommended against an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposal to regulate infectious disease exposure.

The Small Business Advocacy Review Panel, consisting of representatives from the Department of Labor, the White House and the U.S. Small Business Administration, advised OSHA against proceeding with its proposed rule unless the agency can show justification for it for “each potentially covered task and work setting.”

The panel’s judgment followed a series of telephone conferences held with employers at small businesses in potentially regulated industries and a review of their written comments.

OSHA’s Proposal

OSHA’s bloodborne pathogens (BBP) rule already covers occupational exposure to infectious agents transmitted by blood, but doesn’t include transmission by other routes. “Precautions used for bloodborne pathogens are not sufficient in some sectors to protect workers from infectious agents transmitted by the contact, droplet and airborne routes,” the agency said.

OSHA stated that because health care workers and workers involved in ancillary tasks are exposed to infectious diseases in a variety of settings, it is important for employers in all such settings to implement infection-control practices. The proposed rule would generally require employers to follow the nonmandatory Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which are generally recognized and accepted by the health care industry.

“When these practices are consistently and rigorously followed, they have proven effective at preventing the spread of infections. OSHA believes that the evidence shows, however, that many employers do not consistently adopt or rigorously enforce these guidelines, leaving both workers and patients at risk of contracting infectious diseases,” OSHA said.

Panel Findings

The panel called on OSHA to review whether a new rule is necessary in light of existing regulations and guidance, and to assess available data on risks to determine the need for a rule.

Employers at small businesses expressed concern that “significant risk or significant occupational exposures” may not be present in all of the industries a standard might cover. Most respondents reported that they had never had a case of a workplace-acquired infectious disease. Others said it was impossible to determine if an illness was workplace-acquired, and some mentioned outbreaks that occurred in their facilities.

Many employers felt that the precautions required under OSHA’s BBP standard sufficiently protect workers in their industries.

The panel recommended that OSHA consider excluding work settings and job tasks where it has been determined that the BBP standard provides adequate protection. If only minor modifications are required to enhance the BBP standard for certain workplaces, the panel recommended OSHA go that route rather than issuing a new rule.

For example, the panel advised OSHA to consider differentiating between facilities where health care workers routinely provide direct patient care to persons with infectious diseases and facilities that perform other covered tasks only, such as laundry and medical waste facilities, and funeral homes.

Most participating employers questioned the need for a rule at all, stating that they are in compliance with CDC or other applicable guidelines, and must maintain accreditation or certification, although in many cases this does not include an onsite inspection of infection control practices.

“The panel recommends that OSHA carefully review existing regulations and guidance on infection control in determining the need for a rule and consider whether a new OSHA rule is necessary to improve worker health and safety in light of existing regulations and guidance,” said Robert Burt, chairperson for the review panel and director of OSHA’s Office of Regulatory Analysis. The panel suggested that OSHA consider a rule that would be focused solely on training. “Such a rule would be designed to assure that all employees remain up-to-date on the most current and relevant CDC or other applicable guidelines for infection control,” said Burt.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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