A circuit court denied on Thursday, June 11, a petition filed by labor unions that would have forced the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency safety rule to address COVID-19.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously denied the petition filed by the AFL-CIO, holding that OSHA “reasonably determined” that an emergency temporary standard to prevent workers from occupational exposure to COVID-19 was “not necessary at this time.”
The AFL-CIO filed a lawsuit against OSHA May 25, asking the court to compel the agency to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from coronavirus. The union, along with nearly two dozen other unions and employment groups, had already petitioned OSHA directly about a COVID-19 standard. While the agency has released industry-specific guidance for a variety of industries, the guidance is not enforceable.
The AFL-CIO said in filing the suit that tens of thousands of workers have been infected on the job through exposure to infected patients, co-workers and unscreened members of the public. As the economy reopens and people return to work, person-to-person contact will increase and an already "shocking number of infections and deaths among workers will rise,'' the union said, according to the Associated Press.
In its two-page ruling, the appeals court noted that OSHA may issue an emergency temporary standard “if it determines that employees are exposed to grave danger from a new hazard in the workplace” and that the agency was “entitled to considerable deference” in this regard.
"In light of the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the regulatory tools that the OSHA has at its disposal to ensure that employers are maintaining hazard-free work environments, OSHA reasonably determined that an ETS is not necessary at this time,'' the ruling said.
The ruling was signed by Judges Karen LeCraft Henderson, Robert Wilkins and Neomi Rao. Henderson and Rao were appointed by Republican presidents and Wilkins by a Democrat.
The Labor Department said in a statement June 11 that officials were pleased at the ruling, which backed its contention that existing rules and regulations are protecting America’s workers and that an emergency temporary standard is not needed.
The principal deputy assistant secretary for OSHA, Loren Sweatt, issued a statement Thursday praising the court’s decision and reiterating that OSHA “reasonably determined that its existing statutory and regulatory tools” were sufficiently protecting American workers.
The president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, said in a statement June 11 that the court’s actions “fell woefully short of fulfilling its duty to ensure that the Occupational Safety and Health Act is enforced.”