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Federal rules around COVID and health care workplaces lapse

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Dr. Michael Nguyen tends to a patient in a hallway at the Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital on August 18, 2021 in Houston, Texas.

OSHA required health care employers to provide things like training and adequate ventilation, but those protections were temporary. Brandon Bell via Getty Images

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A set of federal rules to prevent COVID-19 in health care workplaces has now lapsed — just as hospitals are starting to see a wave of omicron cases.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration created the emergency rules in June as part of a pledge by President Joe Biden to strengthen workplace COVID safety, but the rules expired after six months.

OSHA had required health care employers to provide things like training, respirators and adequate ventilation. It was the only COVID-specific workplace standard the agency has issued during the pandemic.

According to Jean Ross with National Nurses United, it’s still needed.

“This is still an emergency for nurses and other health care workers,” she said.

But emergency standards like this one — issued without the usual regulatory process — only last six months. OSHA said it won’t extend or replace it.

The agency is pursuing a permanent standard for COVID and other infectious diseases, but that process can take years or even decades, said former OSHA official Jordan Barab.

“So, obviously OSHA issuing a permanent standard is not going to be adequate to address the current COVID-19 crisis,” he said.

Employers are still required to provide a safe workplace, but Barab said without legally binding guidelines specific to COVID, that will be much more open to interpretation.

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