Health Law

6th Circuit reinstates workplace vaccine mandate, says OSHA authority isn’t limited to hard hats, goggles

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A federal appeals court has reinstated an employer vaccine mandate after it was chosen to hear challenges to the Biden administration's directive.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati reinstated the vaccine mandate in a 2-1 decision filed Friday, report Reuters, Bloomberg Law, Law360, Courthouse News Service and the New York Times.

The 6th Circuit was picked in a court drawing to hear 34 consolidated challenges to the mandate.

The policy directs employers with more than 100 workers to require workers to get vaccinated by Jan. 4 or to wear a face mask indoors and test negative for COVID-19 on a weekly basis.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopted the new rule as an emergency temporary standard, an emergency rule that doesn’t initially have to go through the notice and comment practice. An emergency temporary standard can be adopted when “employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Branstetter Stranch wrote the majority opinion for the 6th Circuit panel, joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons.

“Given OSHA’s clear and exercised authority to regulate viruses, OSHA necessarily has the authority to regulate infectious diseases that are not unique to the workplace,” Stranch wrote.

The OSHA’s statutory authority to protect the safety and health of employees “is hardly limited to ‘hard hats and safety goggles.’”

Stranch said the OSHA had provided its reasoning for the vaccine mandate in a 153-page preamble to the emergency temporary standard, known as an ETS.

“OSHA has demonstrated the pervasive danger that COVID-19 poses to workers—unvaccinated workers in particular—in their workplaces,” Stranch wrote. “The realities of the delta variant significantly changed public health policy and underscored a need for issuing an ETS—not only to control the variant itself but to control the spread of the disease to slow further mutations.”

The 6th Circuit decision overturns a ruling by the 5th Circuit at New Orleans, which stayed the rule in November.

U.S. Circuit Judge Joan Larsen said in her dissent she would stay the emergency rule pending review. She said the OSHA didn’t explain why the mandate was necessary or why it determined that all employees faced a “grave danger” from COVID-19.

“To illustrate (without intending to trivialize) OSHA’s task, consider the danger from fire in a workplace: a pizzeria,” Larsen wrote. “One way to protect the workers would be to require all employees to wear oven mitts all the time—when taking phone orders, making deliveries or pulling a pizza from the flames. That would be effective—no one would be burned—but no one could think such an approach necessary. What OSHA’s rule says is that vaccines or tests for nearly the whole American workforce will solve the problem; it does not explain why that solution is necessary.”

The OSHA could have targeted only the most vulnerable workers or only the workplaces with the highest risk of exposure to the virus, Larsen said.

“Would these, or other alternatives, have achieved similar results? We do not know because OSHA did not ask,” Larsen said.

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