Opinion: State Should Expand Protections for COVID-Exposed Workers

Protections
Unsplash.com photo.

I am extremely disappointed that the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health division has chosen to do the minimum and just adopt the federal emergency standard for COVID that is restricted in scope to only health care workers.

While they are clearly at high risk for the disease, there are many other workers in the state who are also at risk and deserve protection. Delivery workers, farmworkers, food processing, grocery, teachers, bus drivers, retail employees, construction workers, prison workers and employees at facilities for the elderly all are exposed to the public, much of which remains unvaccinated.

Many farm workers and poultry workers, for example, live and work on the Eastern Shore. The latest data shows that only 34.8% of people in Caroline County have had their second dose of the vaccine. Other Eastern Shore counties have higher rates but almost all are below 50%. Most children remain unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, when Gov. Larry Hogan declared the pandemic emergency over, many people have stopped wearing masks and social distancing. The Delta variant is surging around the country and in Maryland. It is much more infectious. We also don’t know how long immunity lasts.

So, the risks remain high for many workers in the state. In addition, COVID-19 is just the latest pandemic we have faced. There will be another one, maybe not next year or the year after but eventually we will be hit again.

We could have been better prepared for this pandemic and could be better prepared for the next by issuing a MOSH standard that would protect all workers from this and future pandemics. In other words, a broad standard to protect workers in the state from aerosol-transmitted diseases.

MOSH could issue a broader rule now. At the very least, a broader standard should be adopted to replace the emergency temporary standard when it expires.

One critical component of any standard should be collecting more and better information on cases, e.g., occupation and industry, so we can see more clearly which workplaces and workers are affected disproportionately so we can target our prevention and enforcement efforts better.

The permanent standard can and should be tailored to a variety of workplaces, with separate sections for specific industries based on the nature of the work and potential exposures.

  • It should place top priority on improved ventilation for indoor spaces with increased outside air.
  • Mask wearing should be based on science (neck gaiters don’t really do much) and require real respiratory protection and plans.
  • Surface cleaning should only be required where disease vectors can be re-entrained and airborne again
  • Social distancing should be based on the nature of the work and potential exposures (e.g., places where there is heavy manual labor and workers are breathing harder may require more distancing).
  • Reporting is essential, with occupation and industry collected.
  • Medical removal protection and paid sick leave are essential as well as whistleblower protections.
  • Carve-outs can exist for places where everyone has been vaccinated.
  • Standards in other states, like Virginia, can be used as models.

–SCOTT SCHNEIDER

The writer, a resident of Silver Spring, is a certified industrial hygienist with more than 40 years of experience in occupational safety and health. He delivered these remarks at the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board meeting on July 19.