With federal workplace safety guidelines now calling for fully vaccinated workers to wear masks in areas with elevated risks of COVID-19 transmission, which currently includes every county in Massachusetts, labor advocates are doubling down on their criticism of the state’s expiring workplace regulations.
Massachusetts rules on masking, distancing, and sanitization in the workplace haven’t been enforced since late May and are set to be officially repealed in the coming weeks, despite new guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that masks should be worn in public indoor spaces in areas of high or substantial transmission, regardless of vaccination status.
OSHA is also advising that fully vaccinated workers who are exposed to someone with a suspected or confirmed COVID case get tested. The new recommendations are based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates about breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, who can spread the highly infectious Delta variant to others.
“Governor Baker has chosen to put millions at risk by recklessly pretending there isn’t a global pandemic,” Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, said in a statement. “Make no mistake, COVID-19 is not done with Massachusetts, but Baker is done with COVID-19. This is a historic failure of leadership that will not be forgotten and that will likely result in needless illness and deaths.”
State regulations were rescinded when the state of emergency ended, in coordination with public health experts and industrial hygienists, a state spokeswoman said. The Department of Labor Standards held a public hearing on the matter July 21, during which labor advocates and unions testified about the dangers of potentially exposing workers to the virus, but the state still intends to permanently do away with the regulations by Sept. 3.
The spokeswoman did not respond to questions about the new, more stringent OSHA guidance for protecting workers.
The only coronavirus protections still required in Massachusetts are federal directives, including mask mandates for public or private transportation, health care facilities, or nursing homes and similar congregant care settings. Worker advocates say this lack of statewide standards will force local health departments to protect residents, leading to a “politicization” of COVID-19 protections and potentially different approaches in each community.
There is no official count of how many people in Massachusetts have died as a result of workplace exposure, but MassCOSH estimates it to be in the thousands based on research about COVID transmission on the job. Adults who couldn’t work at home were more than twice as likely to report testing positive for the coronavirus than those who could, according to a state Department of Public Health survey.
And state regulations helped prevent it from being higher, the group said. From June 2020 to May 2021, more than 1,600 COVID-related complaints were made to the state Department of Labor Standards, according to MassCOSH, more than half of which resulted in violations.
At least 124 people in Massachusetts who had been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus have died from the disease, according to the Department of Public Health.
“This latest decision of the Baker/Polito administration ties working families’ hands behind their backs as they continue to battle the scourge of this pandemic on the frontlines,” Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said in a statement.
The Baker administration is also not enforcing new federal protections for public-sector health care workers, labor groups note, including school nurses, workers at state-run nursing homes and hospitals, personal care attendants, and public university health care employees.
The Department of Labor Standards can’t enforce OSHA’s emergency temporary standard because it hasn’t gone through the rulemaking process, according to the state spokeswoman. But MassCOSH said the state’s public-sector OSHA law requires that new federal standards enacted by OSHA automatically apply to public workplaces in Massachusetts.
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.