Amid Pandemic, Workplace Air Quality Standards 'All Over The Place'

Employees at a variety of workplaces are filing OSHA complaints about the risk of COVID-19 spread on the job.
Posted at 4:41 PM, Apr 19, 2021

Maritza Alarcón quickly wrote a will to leave her family last fall while battling COVID-19.

She believes she contracted the disease working as a hotel housekeeper in Boston.

“I think they should do a better job, better ventilation,” Alarcón said.

Masks are required for staff and guests in common areas.

The hotel says it follows industry guidelines to filter the air.

But a year into the airborne pandemic, there are still no national mandatory COVID standards for air ventilation and filtration that apply to all workplaces.

OSHA hasn’t even decided yet if new rules are necessary.

As states reopen and more people return to jobs, scientists say we should be paying more attention to the air we breathe at work.

“For people who work indoors for eight hours a day, five days a week, thinking about the air should be really at the top of your priority list, much higher than surface cleaning and temperature checks,” said Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

OSHA,the CDC and EPA all have guidelines for how to improve air quality at work, but they’re optional.

Marr says there is still a lack of requirements for things like better air filters to trap viral droplets from a coughing coworker.

“Workplaces are all over the place in paying attention to air quality,” she said.

Newsy looked at recent complaints to OSHA filed by employees across the country from a variety of workplaces.

They show persistent concerns about COVID transmission at work.

Hundreds of reports from last month alone tell the story of no mask enforcement and not enough social distancing, adding to the risk of contagion in the air at places including restaurants, grocery stores and schools.

“Aerosols build up in a room over an extended period of time, and so that’s why you need ventilation so much,” said Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at the Federation of American Scientists.

OSHA is weeks behind schedule in deciding whether to issue emergency COVID standards that could include mandatory air quality rules.

The agency says it is taking time to weigh pros and cons, hearing opposition from business interest groups. 

CDC guidelines say even once employees are vaccinated, workplaces should still follow recommendations for maintaining healthy air.