What Cal/OSHA's vote means for masks and the future of workplaces

Masks in the workplace
Posted at 7:36 PM, Jun 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-04 02:33:54-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Cal/OSHA's Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board voted Thursday to adopt revised regulations, while a three-member subcommittee considers more changes.

The revised Cal/OSHA standards relax certain physical distancing requirements and established narrow circumstances when vaccinated workers could shed masks, such as when they are in a room entirely of vaccinated individuals.

The board initially rejected the revised standards in a 4-3 vote but reconsidered minutes later, after some board members emphasized the changes at least loosened the rules currently in place. Those rules would have forced everyone to continue wearing masks and remain physically distanced, regardless of vaccine status.

At a marathon public meeting Thursday, supporters described the updated standards as a gradual easing of California’s existing workplace rules.

The standards, however, did not align with Governor Gavin Newsom’s plans to end virtually all mask and social distancing requirements June 15 for vaccinated people, a point that wasn’t lost on the many public speakers.

The rules keep employees at restaurants, shops and other businesses that interface with the public indoors in masks, even if they were vaccinated. After June 15, many of the customers they serve will presumably be unmasked.

“COVID no longer creates the risk it did one year ago or six months ago,” said Melissa Patack of the Motion Picture Association during the public testimony. “We’ve made much progress in taming this virus and we ask that Cal/OSHA not impose unreasonable burdens in the employment setting.”

The revised proposal allow vaccinated workers to go maskless outdoors but they would have had to continue wearing masks indoors in situations where they might encounter an unvaccinated individual.

Businesses will be required to keep documentation of employees’ vaccine status. Many business groups asked about the documentation requirements at the meeting. The regulations also put new requirements on employers to purchase N95 masks, prompting concern that employers might have to rapidly "stockpile" the respirators.

Eric Berg, Cal/OSHA’s deputy Chief of Health, said extending the mask requirement was necessary to protect unvaccinated individuals and those with compromised immune systems.

“Without this requirement, unvaccinated workers would be at risk given the spread of more contagious SARS-CoV-2 variants,” he said.

He pointed to a study in North Carolina that projected if masks and physical distancing stopped, there would be hundreds of thousands of new infections over the next year even with a high vaccination rate.

Indoor employees are at greater risk than the general public, he said, because they’re exposed for long periods during their shift.

“So we cannot give up on all prevention efforts now,” he said.