70 Leading Public and Occupational and Health Experts call on Governor Baker to Update, not Repeal, COVID-19 Health and Safety Workplace Standards

August 25, 2021

Dear Governor Baker, 

As public health and occupational health and safety experts, we are gravely concerned about the health and lives of workers in the Commonwealth, their families, and their communities in light of the infectiousness and transmissibility of the COVID-19 Delta Variant.  Massachusetts must update protections accordingly. 

On August 13, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued updated guidance to help protect workers from the coronavirus. The updated guidance reflects developments in science and data, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated COVID-19 guidance issued July 27.  Among other recommendations, it urges vaccinated workers to wear masks in substantial or high transmission areas, a designation now held by all 14 counties in Massachusetts.  Despite the new guidelines and rising rates of infection, including among vaccinated individuals, due to the highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617.2 Delta variant, your administration is planning to repeal the June 2020 COVID-19 Workplace Safety Regulations. These regulations provide essential protections for workers and their families from occupational exposure to COVID-19 through requirements such as masking, distancing, cleaning, disinfecting, and providing an avenue for complaints and government response.

In addition, your administration has stated that they will not enforce the OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard for workers in public sector healthcare settings despite the Commonwealth’s public sector OSHA law.  CMR 25.00 Section 25.02 incorporates the federal OSHAct language and standards. There is no exception for emergency temporary standards. The new federal emergency standard covering healthcare facilities and COVID, 29 CFR 1910 Subpart U, that became effective on June 21, 2021, is therefore now part of the mandatory regulations that must be enforced by the Department of Labor Standards (DLS). 

At the same time, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has lifted most health and safety requirements for the Commonwealth’s schools, replacing them with recommendations that go against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. While today’s vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gives Education Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to mandate masks in all K-12 schools is a step in the right direction, that order will be in place only until October 1.  After that time, schools with high vaccination rates can allow vaccinated students to remain unmasked despite CDC guidelines and recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Massachusetts Medical Society, and Massachusetts Academy of Family Physicians for universal indoor masking in schools. Further, DESE does not currently have plans to track COVID-19 cases in schools in the upcoming year.

The removal of these protections is  premature and threatens the lives of the Commonwealth’s workers and residents for several reasons:

  • While approximately 64% of Massachusetts residents are fully vaccinated, there are still many who remain unvaccinated. And the vaccination rate is not equitably distributed.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, while 70% of white people in Massachusetts are vaccinated, only 60% of Black and 55% of  Latinx people in the Commonwealth are vaccinated.  
  • Cases are rising as the more contagious Delta variant has taken over as the dominant coronavirus strain in Massachusetts. The seven-day average number of COVID cases as of August 18 was 905, over fourteen times that of the 7-day average on June 25, which was 64.  People continue to be hospitalized at increasing rates and die. We are not finished – or more accurately, COVID-19 is not yet finished with us. And while the vaccine is the best protection against the virus, it is not 100% effective.  Workers with high occupational exposure are at particular risk.  As of August 17, 2021, Massachusetts reported 12,641 COVID-19 cases in fully vaccinated residents and 124 deaths. 
  • The Commonwealth of Massachusetts must protect all workers and students – and all members of the public – who are at-risk.  We have a duty to protect those who have not yet been vaccinated, those who cannot take the vaccine, and those who remain vulnerable to COVID-19 infection even when vaccinated.  Workers are particularly concerned about bringing home the virus to young children who are unable to be vaccinated.  Children under age 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and lack this critical protection element as they head back to school.
  • Health and safety regulations protect workers and their families. When the DLS regulations were in place, from June 2020 through May 2021, more than 1,600 complaints were filed, with the majority resulting in violations which, when remedied, made workers safer from occupational exposure to COVID-19. These numbers don’t include the thousands of complaints made to and addressed by local public health officials empowered by the regulations.  

We now ask that  your administration immediately provide urgently needed protections to Massachusetts’ workers by:

  • Updating, not repealing, 454 CMR 31:00 COVID-19 Workplace Safety Regulations so that worker protections are designed to address the current COVID-19 threat and the evolving scientific understanding of the mechanisms by which the virus is transmitted.
  • Enforcing the OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard for workers in public sector healthcare facilities.   
  • Implementing multi-layered protections to prevent COVID-19 transmission in our schools, including elementary schools with children under 12 who are currently ineligible for vaccinations. This includes universal masking, beyond the arbitrary October 1 date,  in pre-K through higher education with well-fitting, high-quality masks; funding for ventilation and filtration upgrades to ensure protection from this airborne virus; appropriate distancing that addresses airborne, aerosolized transmission; multiple strategies to increase the rate of vaccination for eligible students;  access to free and regular in-school COVID-19 testing; and tracking of COVID-19 cases in schools. 

This pandemic has not ended. When we act as if it has, all of us are imperiled, especially our front-line workers, teachers, school staff, students, and families.   Now is not the time to end worker protections against this deadly virus.  Instead, mandatory protections, sensibly updated to match the science and the threat, must be put in place. 

  1. Mariana Arcaya, ScD, MCP, Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Health, MIT
  2. Ada Avila, MSW LCSW
  3. Mary T Bassett MD MPH FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University
  4. Carol Bates, MassCOSH Board Member
  5. Leslie I. Boden, Ph.D, Professor, Boston University School of Public Health
  6. Elissa C. Cadillic, President AFSCME 1526 Boston Public Library Employees Union
  7. Jarvis T. Chen, ScD, Lecturer in Social Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  8. David C. Christiani, MD
  9. MyDzung Chu
  10. Manuel Cifuentes Professor of Public Health, Regis College
  11. Richard Clapp, DSc, MPH, Professor Emeritus, Boston University School of Public Health, and Adjunct Professor, U. of Massachusetts, Lowell
  12. Scott Dryden-Peterson, MD MSc, Infectious Disease clinician and epidemiologist, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School
  13. Letitia Davis, ScD, EdM
  14. Jack Dennerlein, PhD, Professor, Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Northeastern University
  15. Elizabeth Egan, MPH, LICSW
  16. Karen M. Emmons, Professor, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
  17. Michael Felsen, National Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health Advisor
  18. Maxine Garbo, MS, RN
  19. Wendy Heiger-Bernays, PhD. Clinical Professor, Boston University School of Public Health
  20. Mike Hugo, Government Affairs Liaison for the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards
  21. Alan Geller, Senior Lecturer, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
  22. Tolle Graham, National Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health Advisor
  23. Devan Hawkins, epidemiologist
  24. Patricia Janulewicz Lloyd, MPH, DSc. Boston University School of Public Health
  25. Paul Kalajian, MassCOSH Board Member
  26. Colin Killick, Executive Director, Disability Policy Consortium
  27. Julia Koehler, MD, Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School
  28. Sarah Koolsbergen, Member of Housing = Health and the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity
  29. David Kriebel, Professor Emeritus, Department of Public Health, University of Massachusetts Lowell
  30. Nancy Krieger, PhD, Professor of Social Epidemiology, American Cancer Society Clinical Research Professor, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA
  31. Sunny Kung, MD, Clinical Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital
  32. Francine Lade, ScD Professor of Environmental Epidemiology, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
  33. Regina LaRocque, MD, MPH Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
  34. Nancy Lessin, MS, Occupational Health Specialist, retired
  35. Barry S. Levy, MD, MPH, Adjunct Professor of Public Health, Tufts University School of Medicine, and Past President, American Public Health Association
  36. Jonathan Levy, Professor and Chair, Department of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health
  37. Kenneth H. Mayer, MD Fenway Health and Harvard Medical School
  38. Katherine Miller MD, Assistant Professor Harvard Medical School
  39. Juliana E. Morris, MD, EdM, Instructor, Harvard Medical School
  40. Rafael Moure-Eraso, PhD, CIH, Emeritus Professor, University of Massachusetts Lowell
  41. David Ozonoff, MD, MPH Professor Emeritus Boston University School of Public Health
  42. Sean Palfrey, MD, emeritus professor of pediatrics and public health, Boston University school of Medicine, emeritus faculty dean, Harvard College
  43. Carlene Pavlos, Executive Director, Massachusetts Public Health Association
  44. Elise Pechter, MPH, CIH (ret)
  45. Lewis Pepper MD MPH
  46. Susan Peters, PhD, Harvard School of Public Health
  47. Dianne Plantamura, MSW, CSS, New England College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (NECOEM)
  48. Christine Pontus, MS, RN, COHN-S/CCM, Associate Director Health and Safety
  49. Laura Punnett, Sc.D., Professor, University of Massachusetts Lowell
  50. Shoba Ramanadhan, ScD, MPH; Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  51. Richard Rabin, MSPH, Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health
  52. Susan M. Reverby, PhD, Professor Emerita, Wellesley College
  53. Martha Richmond, Ph.D., M.P.H., Professor Emerita, Suffolk University
  54. Erika L. Sabbath, ScD, Associate Professor, Boston College School of Social Work
  55. Lora L Sabin, Associate Professor of Global Health, Boston University School of Public Health
  56. Susan Shepherd, Industrial Hygienist
  57. Eduardo Siqueira, MDMPH, Associate Professor,UMass Boston
  58. Craig Slatin, Professor Emeritus, Department of Public Health, University of Massachusetts Lowell
  59. Martha Sola-Visner, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School
  60. Caren Solomon, MD MPH, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
  61. Glorian Sorensen,PhD, Professor and Director, Harvard Chan School of Public Health Center for Work, Health, and Wellbeing
  62. Emily A. Spieler, Edwin W. Hadley Professor of Law, Northeastern University
  63. Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, Executive Director, MassCOSH
  64. Emily Unger, MD/PhD candidate, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health/Harvard Medical School
  65. Gregory R. Wagner, M.D.
  66. Paula Watnick MD PhD
  67. Thomas F. Webster, DSc, Professor, Dept Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health
  68. David H. Wegman MD, MSc, Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Lowell and Adjunct Professor Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
  69. Roberta F. White, PhD, ABPP; Professor; Boston University School of Public health
  70. Emily J. Wilson, PhD, MPH, MS, CHES

* institutional affiliation included for identification purposes only