Word on the street? In Williamstown, the intent isn't masked (copy)

COVID-19 workplace safety standards previously required workplaces to establish distancing protocols and to require all employees to wear masks. While the state Department of Labor Standards has dropped those standards and is pursuing their permanent repeal, public health and labor groups have called for the standards to be revised rather than repealed outright.

The state Department of Labor Standards stopped enforcing COVID-19 safety standards when the state of emergency expired in June.

Yet, the delta variant has led COVID-19 transmission in the state to surge once more. Public health and labor leaders say the lack of enforcement leaves workers without a key line of defense against working conditions that may increase their exposure to the virus. Many people continue to work in settings that expose them to coworkers or customers who are not vaccinated.

“Workers have no recourse and no one to turn to if they feel unsafe in their workplace and they feel their employer is putting them at risk,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, adding that some workers fear spreading the virus to others they live with. “There may be guidelines, but with no enforcement they are left with no support.”

MassCOSH says the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker should revise the standards, which include distancing and masking protocols, to align with current science rather than repeal them outright. The state’s approach, Sugerman-Brozan said, displays “a continued denial of the role that workplace exposure is playing in spreading a deadly virus.”

MassCOSH has estimated that “hundreds, if not thousands,” of workers have died of COVID-19 related to workplace infection, and more than 11,000 filed claims for missing five or more days of work for what they believed to be a work-related infection.

The state has continued to pursue the permanent repeal of the standards, including through holding a July 21 hearing on the topic. The permanent repeal will take effect no later than Sept. 3, a Department of Labor Standards spokesperson said in an email.

“The workplace safety regulations had been promulgated pursuant to the state of emergency, the Governor’s Executive Orders, and in coordination with public health experts and industrial hygienists, DLS, therefore, rescinded them on an emergency basis when the state of emergency ended,” the spokesperson said.

At the July 21 hearing, all who testified opposed the repeal of the regulations, WCVB reported.

“The vaccines are critical and essential, but they are not a magical shield,” Dr. Julia Koehler, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School professor, said at the hearing.

Christine Pontus, associate director of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said it seemed “ill-advised at this time to repeal during a time of uncertainty.”

More than 1,600 workplace health and safety cases were opened between June 2020 and May 2021, although “thousands of additional complaints were fielded and dismissed without a case being opened,” the state spokesperson said. Sugerman-Brozan said that more than half of cases resulted in a violation, resulting in safer working conditions when they violations where addressed. Retail and food service saw the most complaints, she added.

Sugerman-Brozan said that while she finds it “encouraging” that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has moved to require masking in schools, she believes policies from individual state agencies are no substitute for statewide standards. She added that if the state Department of Labor Standards does not enforce standards, workplace safety issues will be left to local public health boards, which she said are already overworked.

“The hope would be that workers have one place that they could turn to if they are unsafe at work,” she said. “The piecemeal approach makes it very difficult to ensure that all workers get the protection they need and deserve.”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.