While states repeal mask mandates, the federal government quietly considers mask regulations for workers

A federal regulatory agency is approaching the deadline to decide whether masks should be required at workplaces in the United States, in response to an executive order by President Biden.

On January 21, President Joe Biden’s first full day in office, he signed an executive order that asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, to consider if any new emergency temporary standards are needed to protect workers from Covid-19. That could include masks in workplaces, if necessary, the order said — and such standards would need to be issued by March 15.

Covid-19 requirements from OSHA would be very different than the mask guidance and recommendations from the White House or the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

OSHA, a large regulatory agency within the US Department of Labor, has federal power to set and enforce standards to ensure safe working conditions that covers most working Americans in all 50 states. It can enforce requirements anywhere from local shops to factory floors to large corporations. Failure by a business to comply with any OSHA requirement can result in fines, jail time and legal liability.

Federally mandating masks in all workplaces is unprecedented. There were previous regulations on respiratory protection for workers in hazardous environments or healthcare roles, but not for the majority of the American workforce.

Earlier this year, OSHA issued guidance encouraging employers to implement measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace but did not mandate them to act. That may soon change.

A federal OSHA workplace mask regulation would apply even in states that are no longer requiring face coverings or have loosened Covid-19 restrictions.

A US Department of Labor spokesperson told CNN that OSHA is considering the need for an emergency temporary standard, or any new rules and regulations, to better protect workers during the pandemic. That includes considering rules for face masks, and OSHA is exploring using the first efficiency standard for consumer masks that can guarantee quality and effectiveness, which were recently published by ASTM International — an international standards organization.

“As OSHA studies this potential action, it will consider the recent ASTM standard on barrier face coverings and its potential to provide the most effective personal protective benefits,” a US Department of Labor spokesperson told CNN Wednesday.

Considering mask standards

ASTM International recently published the first national mask standard for consumers that outline minimum fit, design, performance and testing requirements and would require user instructions, package labeling and a permanent tag on the product. To meet ASTM standards, manufacturers are required to test their facial coverings in accredited labs to certify performance, register their products and use an outlined ASTM labeling system on their products.

Previously there were no standards for consumer masks, even though masks are highly recommended by US health officials to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

While many Americans have been going to work throughout the pandemic, some Americans have yet to return to their workplace in a Covid-19 environment. To ensure workers are safe, OSHA is working to expand the ability to report workplace safety complaints in relation to Covid-19 protection.

“We are preparing to implement a national emphasis program that focuses our efforts on violations that put the largest number of workers at risk of contracting coronavirus or are contrary to anti-retaliation principles,” a Department of Labor spokesperson told CNN Wednesday. “OSHA is reviewing its enforcement efforts related to Covid-19 and identifying changes to better protect workers and ensure the safety of its compliance officers, “the spokesperson continued.

Pressure mounting

Pressure has been mounting on OSHA to adopt the new ASTM mask standards.

In a letter to Biden’s top coronavirus advisers last month, a dozen health and safety experts — including four members of Biden’s former advisory board — called on the CDC and OSHA to adopt the ASTM standard for better protection for workers and the general public.

The letter asks OSHA to create a higher benchmark for workers — masks with 80% protection – using the design and testing criteria outlined by the ASTM standard.

Mask manufacturers are also encouraging OSHA to adopt the new ASTM mask standard. In two recent letters to the Biden administration, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, known as INDA, and the newly formed American Mask Manufacturers Association, or AMMA, tell the Biden administration that American mask and material manufacturers can adequately supply the country with high-quality masks and encourage the implementation of a national mask standard.

INDA represents more than 200 US suppliers of raw materials and equipment manufacturers and AMMA, is made up of more than 40 American mask manufacturing companies.

“Based on INDA’s activities working with US government entities and its membership, it is INDA’s opinion that the raw material shortage for the production of US face masks and respirators has been addressed for the time being,” INDA President Dave Rousse said in the letter, which was sent to President Joe Biden.

The other letter, by AMMA, outlines the current US monthly production capacity of 902 million high-filtration masks and says there are 690 million unused high-filtration masks currently sitting in warehouses.

“We want to assure you that America’s mask manufacturers have ample capacity to meet the entire needs of our nation during emergencies such as this pandemic,” the AMMA letter says.

OSHA is required to respond to President Biden’s executive order on March 15, 2021.