face mask on blue background
(Photo courtesy Anna Shvets/Pexels)

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health backtracked this week on its recently revised workplace safety guidelines that would have required workers to continue wearing a mask in some situations even if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Less than a week after Cal/OSHA’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board voted to adopt the revised workplace rules, the board held a special meeting Wednesday to publicly consult with state public health officials – namely state Public Health Officer Dr. Tomas Aragon – on whether vaccinated people should be able to forego wearing a mask around unvaccinated coworkers if their employer allows them to do so.

The board’s unanimous vote to retract the new guidelines – leaving in place guidelines from November requiring all workers to wear a mask at all times, regardless of vaccination status – tees up a potential vote on revised guidelines, again, at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting June 17.

The rules approved at the June 3 meeting would have allowed workers to forego masks in rooms in which all workers are vaccinated.

Outdoors, vaccinated and unvaccinated workers without symptoms only needed to wear a mask when working at an event with more than 10,000 attendees.

Employers would have also been able to get rid of distancing requirements and protective partitions if they provided N95 respirators to unvaccinated employees.

The June 3 rules prompted a mixed response, with some labor groups arguing that they were paramount to worker safety while other groups including business advocates argued that the rules were too strict in light of the state’s paltry COVID-19 metrics and high rate of vaccination.

The June 3 rules also would have gone into effect after the state lifts its mask mandate for fully vaccinated people in most situations on Tuesday.

During a briefing Wednesday prior to the Cal/OSHA board’s meeting, state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly declined to answer questions during a briefing Thursday about whether Cal/OSHA’s June 3 rules were too stringent or whether they inadvertently supported skepticism of the vaccines’ effectiveness, citing that the Cal/OSHA board is an independent body.

Ghaly did, however, note that all clinical and real-world data show that the three COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States are incredibly effective at preventing coronavirus-related illness and death.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has also remained mum on whether he will intervene in Cal/OSHA’s decision-making process, declining to answer whether he would issue an executive order overriding the now-defunct workplace masking rules.

Information on the June 17 meeting, scheduled to start at 10 a.m., can be found at https://www.dir.ca.gov/oshsb/documents/agendaJun172021.pdf.

Comments on the rulemaking process can also be sent to oshsb@dir.ca.gov.