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Worker advocates blast state — again — for failing to protect workers from COVID

US Air Force Veteran Robert Aucoin, 78, got his temperature checked prior to receiving his COVID-19 vaccine dose at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass., in December 2020.
US Air Force Veteran Robert Aucoin, 78, got his temperature checked prior to receiving his COVID-19 vaccine dose at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass., in December 2020.Leon Nguyen/Associated Press

A group of labor advocates is once again decrying the state’s inaction on COVID-19 workplace safety, citing its decisions to drop Massachusetts regulations on masking, distancing, and sanitization and to disregard new federal protections for public-sector health care workers.

The Department of Labor Standards is holding a public hearing Wednesday about eliminating the state regulations, and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health and a group of unions plan to testify about the dangers of potentially exposing workers to the virus. The state said these regulations were rescinded when the state of emergency ended, in coordination with public health experts and industrial hygienists.

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But workers advocates note that case numbers are rising as the Delta variant spreads and that at least 79 fully vaccinated people have died of the virus. Without state enforcement, they say, workers are at the whims of their employers, and the public.

“The state has just never, ever taken workplace exposure seriously,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of MassCOSH, noting that Massachusetts didn’t put employee COVID safety regulations in place until last fall. “The Baker administration has just been completely averse to recognizing the role that work is playing in making people sick and spreading the virus.”

There is no official count of how many people have died as a result of workplace exposure, but MassCOSH estimates it to be in the thousands. And state regulations have helped prevent it from being higher. From June 2020 to May 2021, more than 1,600 COVID-related complaints were made to the Department of Labor Standards, according to MassCOSH, more than half of which resulted in violations.

But now, Sugerman-Brozan said, workers who are exposed to unvaccinated customers or who are immunocompromised have nowhere to turn if they feel unsafe. Her hope is that Wednesday’s hearing will convince the state to enforce COVID workplace regulations but admits that will likely require more advocacy, or possibly legal action.

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MassCOSH is also up in arms that the state is not enforcing the new Occupational Health and Safety Administration emergency temporary standard — which is focused on health care workers — for public-sector employees in Massachusetts, including school nurses, workers at state-run nursing homes and hospitals, personal care attendants, and public university health care employees. The protocols include screening employees for COVID, protecting them from retaliation for reporting violations, and training them to prevent the spread of the virus.

A state spokesman said the Department of Labor Standards can’t enforce OSHA’s temporary standard because it is a proposal and hasn’t gone through the rule-making process. But MassCOSH said the standard is in fact official and the state’s public-sector OSHA law requires that new federal standards enacted by OSHA automatically apply to public workplaces in Massachusetts.

“With the abysmal record that the state had in state-run facilities and nursing homes, including the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, it’s beyond me why they wouldn’t want to take this step to make sure these protections are in place,” said Sugerman-Brozan. “We need to find a way to stop the spread of this virus.”

The Department of Labor Standards’ refusal to implement the federal OSHA standards could also affect its funding. Once a state has all the OSHA regulations in place, Sugerman-Brozan said, it can apply to have the agency match its budget, which would double DLS’s capacity to provide protection for state and municipal workers.

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“OSHA is not going to look too fondly on the state of Massachusetts not enforcing all of the OSHA regulations,” she said.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.