Cal/OSHA will propose allowing vaccinated workers to stop wearing masks
Members of a California workplace safety board suggested they will move to allow fully vaccinated employees to stop wearing masks while on the job, putting proposed health rules in agreement with recommendations issued by federal and state health officials.
Details were scant, but Eric Berg, deputy chief of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said the expectation is that the standards “will be consistent with” new mask rules issued by the California Department of Public Health for the general public, which are set to go into effect Tuesday.
Those rules allow people who are fully vaccinated to not wear masks, with some exceptions, such as on public transit.
The proposal will be presented at a meeting June 17 and could go into effect by June 28 once it’s reviewed by the state Office of Administrative Law. It would affect most workplace settings, with exceptions including healthcare sites.
The comments came during a special meeting of the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board on Wednesday night that was called to “avoid confusion regarding the requirements of the workplace safety standards, which would make both enforcement and compliance unduly difficult,” said Chairman David Thomas.
“We’re trying to be very proactive here and give the division a chance to include all of this so that [the proposed rule] matches up with the CDC and the California Department of Public Health so that we’re all on the same page,” he said.
It was less than a week ago that the seven-member board recommended a stricter mask rule, which would have required that workers in a room be allowed to take off their masks only if every person inside was fully vaccinated and did not have COVID-19 symptoms. Masks would still be required if anyone in the room was not fully vaccinated.
The board was divided on the issue, voting initially to reject the proposal, as a majority of members seemed inclined to go further in relaxing face-covering requirements.
In a compromise cobbled together on June 3, the board voted to advance the standards and create a subcommittee to work on revisions.
But that sparked an outcry from business leaders and others who thought the Cal/OSHA proposal for mask requirements was too confusing and contradictory to standards issued by the state Department of Public Health.
The board voted unanimously Wednesday night to rescind that proposal, which had been on track to go into effect June 15.
The actions effectively mean that vaccinated workers will still need to mask up at workplaces until June 28, when the new proposal is expected to go into effect.
Business groups that opposed last week’s stricter proposal warned it could create a situation in which vaccinated people would resent unvaccinated co-workers for forcing everyone in an office to wear a mask.
A requirement that employers, starting July 31, make available respirators such as N95 masks for voluntary use by unvaccinated workers was particularly objectionable to the business groups. The rule would have applied to those who work in outdoor settings with more than 10,000 people or indoors.
In a letter dated Monday, a coalition of California business groups asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order that would conform workplace guidelines with those issued by the CDC and California Department of Public Health.
“An executive order will create a faster and more equitable recovery,” the letter states. “Conformity and consistency will help reassure small and large businesses that they can bring their employees back safely and in compliance with clear guidelines and accountability. Businesses are making reopening and rehiring decisions now and need clarity immediately. We cannot wait weeks — or months — for Cal/OSHA to act.”
Labor representatives, meanwhile, continued to call for the board to not relax the mask standards, saying that the pandemic is not over and that protective measures besides vaccinations are still necessary to keep vulnerable workers from falling ill.
“Showing up for work so that you can earn a paycheck and support yourself and your family is not the same as deciding whether or not to go to a Sunday backyard barbecue. Most workers do not have a choice,” said Saskia Kim, representing the California Nurses Assn.
Some infectious-diseases experts have said that vaccines can be trusted to end the pandemic and suggested that the original Cal/OSHA mask proposal was unnecessarily restrictive.
At some point, those experts say, people who choose not to get vaccinated need to accept the responsibility of wearing a mask to protect themselves.
With daily coronavirus case rates in California’s largest metro areas falling to extremely low levels, herd immunity to COVID-19 could begin to protect even those who aren’t inoculated.
Those who are fully vaccinated have an extraordinarily low risk of getting infected by the coronavirus.