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Oregon may make COVID-19 workplace rules permanent

Face masks and social distancing are likely to remain a fixture of the shopping and working experience for some time, according to the state’s employee safety department.

Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has announced plans to make its series of COVID-19 public health emergency regulations permanent — with some tweaks to the rulebook — at least until the pandemic fades away.

“We have not yet defeated this disease, and we clearly will not have done so by the time the temporary rule expires,” said Oregon OSHA Administrator Michael Wood. “As a result, it is critically important that we carry forward measures that we know are effective at combating the spread of this disease and reducing risks in the workplace.”

OSHA first adopted its temporary rules for addressing COVID-19 risk Nov. 16, and says the rules will expire May 4.

Because the law does not allow the extension of temporary workplace regulations, OSHA has prepared 105 pages of proposed permanent rulemaking. Virtual public hearings will be held before their adoption.

“Oregon OSHA intends to repeal the rule when it is no longer necessary to address that pandemic,” the agency explained. “Because it is not possible to assign a specific time for that decision, Oregon OSHA will consult with ... the Oregon Health Authority and other stakeholders as circumstances change to determine when all or part of the rule can be appropriately repealed.”

What won’t change?

Keeping 6 feet of distance from all others, requiring customers and employees to wear a face covering — as well as regular sanitation of common areas, shared equipment and high-touch surfaces — will continue to be mandatory, assuming the rule is approved by the department.

Employers will continue to be required to display safety posters, develop an infection control plan, ventilate businesses as much as possible and provide employees with training in case the novel coronavirus strikes.

Public health agencies will retain the power to direct companies to isolate certain employees who have been potentially exposed or infected.

What will change?

Among the changes, OSHA will ask employers to consider not transporting multiple people in a single vehicle, though this activity will not be prohibited.

Business owners with more than 10 employees and existing ventilation systems will be required to certify in writing that the ducts are flowing, and bosses will be required to cooperate with public health agencies that seek to arrange workplace vaccinations.

Written notice will be mandatory for employees who quarantine, with the notice stating their right to return to work — without penalty from management — after the period of isolation ends.

Health care organizations will be required to provide workers believed to be exposed to COVID-19 with respirators, unless they demonstrate a “genuine shortage.”

OSHA highlights that wearing face shields — the thin plastic visors resembling welders’ masks — “should be discouraged when more suitable alternatives” exist to prevent spreading the disease. Oregon Health Authority is considering banning face shields entirely.

Vaccines not required

While the Bureau of Labor and Industry previously announced that employers may require their employees to be inoculated, with some exceptions OSHA’s proposed rules state that “employers need not require employees to accept the vaccination.”

If employers are offered the vaccine on a voluntary basis, those who refuse must provide written documentation.

However, if the Oregon Health Authority or another agency requires certain workplaces to get their shots, the employer must cooperate by making workers and space available.

“It is the considered opinion of both the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon OSHA that all individuals should accept vaccination unless it is medically contraindicated,” the agency said. “Allowing some workers to decline such a vaccination does not indicate any doubts on the part of the state or Oregon about the value of the vaccine and the importance of reaching a high vaccination rate to both public and worker health.”

Linda Golden of Medford shops Monday at Sherm’s Thunderbird Market in Medford. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune