New federal workplace safety rules, although well-intentioned, are burdensome and do not account for frequently changing guidance from other agencies, according to senior living association executives.

Friday was the comment deadline for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s COVID-19 emergency temporary standard, or ETS, for healthcare settings. The federal government extended the original comment deadline after pleas from the industry to allow providers more time to analyze and prepare remarks for review.

American Seniors Housing Association President David Schless said he joins other senior living-related associations — Argentum, American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living  and LeadingAge — in underscoring the industry’s collective concerns and objection to the ETS potentially being converted into a permanent standard.

“We believe, while well intentioned, the ETS adds burdensome regulations and does not account for frequently changing guidance from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], [World Health Organizations], and local and state agencies,” Schless wrote in his comments to OSHA. “Many of the requirements in the OSHA ETS are already in place in most senior living communities. We urge OSHA to take into consideration the burden providers assume when required to follow similar, but different, guidance from multiple agencies.”

The standards were announced in June alongside new general industry guidance for fully vaccinated individuals. Among other actions, they require operators to conduct hazard assessments and written plans to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, provide some employees with N95 respirators and other personal protective equipment, and follow protocols for social distancing, employee screening, and cleaning and disinfecting.

Argentum President and CEO James Balda called the ETS “overly burdensome and duplicative.”

“Assisted living providers have worked tirelessly during the pandemic to protect vulnerable residents and staff, and the data supports their heroic efforts with nearly two-thirds of communities having suffered no COVID-19-related fatalities,” Balda told McKnight’s Senior Living. “This standard would add unnecessary red tape that would take away from resident care and create conflicting guidance with policies providers already follow at the state and local level.”

In a joint letter to OSHA, the leaders of AHCA / NCAL, Argentum, ASHA, LeadingAge and the Pediatric Complex Care Association said that long-term and post-acute care providers  continue to focus on protecting older adults in the face of the continuing pandemic. The ETS, they said, “adds a layer of confusion and interferes with the abilities of professionals to make good, clinical decisions.” 

The groups collectively called on OSHA not to make the ETS into a permanent standard, given the pace of vaccination in the long-term care industry. They also pledged their commitment to work with the agency to develop airborne infectious disease standards that are “feasible, protect employees, and can serve in various outbreaks to allow for providers to be fully prepared and supported in these efforts.”

Some of the language was echoed in comments written by AHCA / NCAL Senior Vice President of Government Relations Clifton J. Porter.

“If OSHA intends to promulgate a permanent airborne infectious disease rule, we request that OSHA work with long-term care providers to develop airborne infectious disease standards that are feasible, protect employees, and allow for providers to be fully prepared and supported in the face of any infectious disease outbreak,” he wrote in his comments on the ETS.

The standard also calls on assisted living and other employers to encourage workers to get vaccinated, as well as to provide workers with paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover from any vaccine-related side effects. Fully vaccinated workers, according to the standard, are exempt from masking, social distancing and barrier requirements when in “well-defined areas” with little to no exposure to individuals with suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus.

Balda said that assisted living communities already know that vaccinations are key to keeping residents and staff safe, which he said is evident because 90% of residents and 70% of workers are vaccinated.

Many senior living operators have implemented policies requiring vaccination as a condition of employment, and the industry associations themselves have issued statements regarding COVID-19 vaccination. Argentum said it supports employers who issue mandates, and ASHA said it “strongly urges senior living operators to adopt policies that maximize the level of vaccination for all residents and staff.” AHCA / NCAL said it “strongly urges” vaccination, whereas LeadingAge has called for mandatory vaccination among long-term care workers and other healthcare workers.

Schless wrote that he was encouraged by OSHA’s agreement to less strict infection control measures when employees are vaccinated.

“We believe that senior living staff may be more motivated to get the vaccine if they are given dispensation from some of the more inconvenient infection control measures, such as continuous use of masks, testing and social distancing,” Schless wrote. “Compliance with CDC, and / or state and local government infection control requirements, should suffice as meeting the requirement of the ETS and will serve to incentivize vaccines among employees.”

The new COVID-19 workplace safety rules will affect about 10.3 million employees in assisted living communities, nursing homes, home healthcare agencies and other healthcare settings.

More comments on the standard are posted here.