(Reuters) -The U.S. Department of Labor issued an emergency rule on Thursday for controlling COVID-19 and protecting workers in healthcare settings, but stopped short of extending the rule to other high-risk industries.
Hospitals, nursing homes and other health facilities will be required within 14 days to implement the rule that covers face masks, ventilation and requirements for screening and limiting patients and visitors.
The rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) aligns with existing non-binding guidance from the agency, but gives workers greater leverage to demand protections and provides for stricter enforcement and fines.
The agency also provided non-binding guidance for unvaccinated workers in high-risk settings, such as shifting some of those workers to off-hours, installing physical barriers on assembly lines and staggering breaks.
Labor unions and workplace safety advocates have pushed for the emergency temporary standard since the start of the pandemic and wanted the rules to apply to meatpacking, transport and other sectors that suffered clusters of severe COVID-19 outbreaks.
“We believe we are targeting and focusing on workers at the highest risk,” Jim Frederick, the acting director of OSHA, told Reuters.
He said OSHA is adding inspectors and will provide other high-risk sectors with education, training and assistance in complying with non-binding guidance.
Businesses have been wrestling with the best way to bring back staff safely while also easing COVID-19 protocols like the use of masks.
The Biden Administration said on Thursday that government employees returning to the office should not be required to receive a vaccine or forced to disclose their vaccination status.
Business groups could challenge OSHA’s healthcare rule by arguing it should have been adopted through a slower rule-making process with public comment, rather than the emergency process used when there is a “grave danger.”
Under the Trump Administration, OSHA focused on issuing non-binding guidance which the agency said allowed for greater flexibility during a rapidly changing outbreak.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh was criticized at a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives by Republican lawmakers who disagreed with the need for an emergency rule.
“Let’s let people go back to work in a normal fashion,” said Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican from Michigan.
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Additional reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New YorkEditing by Noeleen Walder and Bill Berkrot)