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NC Department of Labor adopts new federal worker safety standards boosting protection for healthcare workers

The North Carolina Department of Labor announced Wednesday that it will adopt the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s COVID-19 standard, which serves as an enforceable framework to bring employees into workplace safety compliance.

The federal emergency standard is limited in its scope, only applying to healthcare workers. It requires employers in the healthcare industry to develop COVID plans, provide Personal Protective Equipment, make testing available, and remove sick workers while providing normal benefits, among other things.

“We understand that interpreting and implementing these new requirements may be challenging for employers in the healthcare industry, and we stand ready to assist stakeholders who have questions about the new standard,” Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson said in a news release.

Former Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry

As Policy Watch previously reported,  NCDOL failed to inspect the majority of workplaces that received COVID-related workplace safety complaints due to a lack of enforceable standards. Yet former Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry denied workers’ rights groups’ petition for rulemaking that urged the agency to adopt either temporary or permanent standards. Berry ignored evidence indicating clusters of COVID cases in certain industries, such as agriculture and meat processing; She insisted, instead, that the coronavirus is widespread and not specific to workplaces. [Note: The parent organization of Policy Watch, NC Justice Center, represented the petitioners.]

The petition is now under judicial review in the Wake County Superior Court at the request of the petitioners. At an earlier hearing for the review, state counsel for the agency pushed back against the notion of more enforcement and emphasized the department’s role in education. If a judge rules in favor of petitioners, NCDOL would have to engage in the rulemaking process.

“It’s disappointing that the federal government didn’t adopt a broader rule to protect all workers, but NCDOL could still do so,” Carol Brooke, a staff attorney at the Justice Center representing the workers’ groups said in an email.

Instead, the state went no further than the federal regulation.

North Carolina regulates workplace safety with its own state plan, which requires the state’s occupational safety and health program to be at least as effective as the federal OSHA program. Verbatim adoption of the federal emergency standard for COVID ensures the state remains in compliance with the state-plan agreement, the state agency stated in a news release. The new COVID emergency standard will take effect in North Carolina on July 21.

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