California workplace regulators turned around for the second time in a week Wednesday and withdrew a controversial pending mask regulation while considering a rule more in line with Gavin Newsom’s government promise to reopen the state from Tuesday’s pandemic.
The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board’s revised rule, passed last week after it was initially rejected, would only allow workers to waive masks if every employee in a room is fully vaccinated against coronavirus. This is in contrast to the state’s broader plan to remove almost all masking and social distancing requirements for vaccinated people in consultation with the latest recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Withdrawing this workplace rule before it takes effect allows the board to consider changes at its June 1
The goal of the unanimous vote, said Chairman David Thomas, is to change workplace regulations “so that it is in line with the CDC and the California Department of Public Health so that we are all on the same page. That’s what it’s about, so we’re not out of step with everyone else. ”
The staff of the Safety Council was not specific to what changes it will recommend next week, except that it will try to comply with the rules of the workplace in more detail with the guidelines for public health.
But Eric Berg, vice president of health for California’s Department of Occupational Health, known as Cal / OSHA, said public health guidelines generally allow anyone vaccinated to skip a mask indoors. Under those rules, he said, “a vaccinated person does not have to wear a mask in the workplace.”
The turnaround came after state health officer Dr. Tomás Aragón reiterated to board members at a quickly scheduled special meeting that next week the state will finalize most masking rules for people who have been vaccinated, while continuing to require facial coatings for unvaccinated people in indoor public environments and businesses.
Exceptions where everyone must remain masked include public transit, indoor school classes, health care and crime facilities and places like homeless shelters and cold stores, Aragón said. Individual companies may also require everyone to remain masked under the general rules, he said.
Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, a coalition of large companies with large California operations, was among many business representatives urging the board to comply with its rule of public health requirements.
“Employers cannot plan with this high level of insecurity,” she said. “We are disappointed and frustrated by the confusion, the process, the substance and the lack of leadership.”
The workplace’s more restrictive approach put Newsom in an awkward position as he fights for a pending recall election, though he was reluctant to override a board he appoints.
“The public does not distinguish between this board and the rest of the Newsom administration,” Michael Miiller, California Association of Winegrape Growers’ director of government relations, told board members before the vote. “What they hear is that the Newsom administration is saying that wearing masks in the workplace might be here to stay.”
The pressure on the board was built when a dozen business groups, including the California Retailers Association and organizations representing producers, farmers, tourism interests and other industries, sent a letter to Newsom asking him to immediately issue an emergency order repealing board rules.
Demanding masks unless everyone is vaccinated in a workplace would “create yet another barrier to rehabilitation and reopening” at a time when “we need to provide incentives to bring people back,” they said. In addition, they said that requiring masks for people who are fully inoculated could lead the public to believe that the vaccine is not really effective.
Representatives of business organizations at Wednesday’s meeting repeatedly asked the board to completely repeal its pandemic rules and rely on Cal / OSHA’s underlying authority to protect workers. Employee advocates countered that the pandemic is not over, and coronavirus variants pose a threatening danger.
Board member Laura Stock said it is important to protect employees who do not have a realistic choice but to go to work.
For example, government data shows that in the retail sector in the last 30 days, “there were 70 outbreaks more than two a day,” said Stock, who heads the work environment program at UC Berkeley. “There are still outbreaks.”
Business groups also want the board to withdraw its proposal to require employers to start providing the most effective N95 masks for voluntary use by employees working indoors or at large outdoor events and not fully vaccinated, from 31 July. It would be expensive and compete with the needs of healthcare professionals, they said.
But “the N95 is the one that checked all these boxes” for safety, Stock said.
The rules of the Cal / OSHA Board apply to almost all workplaces in the state, including workers in offices, factories and retail. Its pandemic rules apply to all employees except those who work from home or where there is a single employee who has no contact with other people.
Even before Wednesday’s vote, board members stressed that their revised rules were temporary, and they appointed a subcommittee to continue working on revisions.
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