Alaska reopened without input from state’s workplace safety agency

The Alaska Occupational Safety and Health agency was not consulted about workplace safety and the state’s reopening by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, its director told legislators on Wednesday.

Though the agency has the power to issue workplace safety regulations, it is not considering any actions that would mandate public health measures that may slow the spread of the virus, which has surged since the state lifted measures that shuttered most businesses.

The disclosure came during a joint hearing today between the House State Affairs and Health and Social Services committees, which Democratic legislators hoped would make the case for the state—or at least Alaska Occupational Safety and Health (AKOSH)—to take a stronger role in limiting the spread of the virus by setting clear expectations for workplace safety in both private and public facilities.

During questions with AKOSH officials, Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, the Bethel Democrat who chairs the House Health and Social Services Committee, asked what input they had on the state’s reopening or on measures to inform employees who may have come into close contact with someone infected with COVID-19.

“We have not had direct involvement with either of those two scenarios which you asked about,” said Alaska Labor Standards and Safety Division Director Joseph Knowles.

“Just to be clear that I understand correctly,” Zulkosky responded. “So, while AKOSH promulgates rules on worker safety across the state, amidst this pandemic and having to reopen there have not been any conversations with the administration and their plans to move forward or any recommendations from AKOSH about best practices as the state has moved to reopen?”

“To the best of my knowledge, at our level here, within Labor Standards and Safety, we have not had direct activities in that matter,” Knowles replied, but pointed to the system’s voluntary consultation system to work with businesses that approach the state for assistance. “We do maintain our consultation and training teams. We share our resources through the website, phone calls and emails to reach as many folks as possible. … But to your questions at our level, no.”

Zulkosky called it a missed opportunity during the hearing, noting that businesses are buried in confusion as they reopen and attempt to keep people safe. Following the haring, she released a statement later that was harsher in her assessment of the situation.

“I am alarmed by the lack of coordination between the Administration and Alaska Occupational Safety and Health – which sets workplace safety standards for businesses across the state –  to issue evidence-based guidance to safely reopen amidst a global pandemic,” she said. “Businesses need clear, comprehensive standards to ensure Alaska is safely reopening our economy in a way that protects frontline workers and Alaskans who patron local businesses.”

The hearing also featured several other testifiers, including a union member who said hotels particularly are not doing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a specialist who talked about ways buildings could help reduce the spread of COVID with changes to how the HVAC systems are operated, a teacher who warned that reopening schools would require significant changes, a national researcher who’s studied the impact enforcement can have on workplace safety as well as former Alaska Labor Standards and Safety Division Director Deborah Kelly.

Kelly, who now works as the statewide director of National Electrical Contractors Association, said regulations can go a very long way to ensuring employees and the public are protected. She called on the state to act but noted that far-reaching regulations would need serious input from the affected industries.

“There’s a lot of different guidance out there. It’s always evolving and that can be really challenging for employers who are trying to navigate this new world. So many things are changing on a fast basis that, especially for small employers, being expected to become health experts in addition to dealing with their operational changes is a pretty big ask,” she said. “Standards can assist with that.”

Kelly also said that personal protective equipment like masks should really be considered a last line of defense against the virus only after other measures like teleworking, staggering shifts and other measures are taken to lessen an employee’s exposure to the virus.

State Affairs Committee co-chair Rep. Zack Fields, a former special assistant to the Department of Labor, echoed her sentiment. He commended the state for working one-on-one with businesses but said it will leave many uncertain and unsure about how to stay safe.

“It’s important to recognize with COVID safety in the workplace is really complicated,” Fields said. “Your average employer is not an epidemiologist and there’s just real value in the department promulgating some standards while recognizing that consultation does some really valuable work but just with their capacity they’re going to reach a tiny, tiny fraction of all employers in a given timeframe.”

Why it matters

Alaska is in the midst of a new surge in COVID-19 cases that has overwhelmed public health officials’ ability to trace potential contacts and inform them of their possible exposure and infection to the virus. Thanks to the politicization of masks and other public health orders, there’s been a great level of confusion and lack of compliance about what’s needed for businesses to reopen safely.

This took a turn last week when the city of Anchorage released a list of 19 bars, restaurants and strip clubs where people infected with COVID-19 had come into close contact with an uncertain number of other customers and employees. It was the largest release of such information after the state also named a handful of bars where people with COVID-19 had visited and has kicked off a debate between public safety versus protecting businesses.

Health workers, economists and legislators like Fields and Zulkosky have urged the state to take a more aggressive approach with a mask mandate, arguing that such measures would not only protect public health but would also protect the reopening of the economy and maintain customer confidence.

Anchorage, Seward, Cordova and Sitka Valdez have all implemented mask mandates while the state has so far refused to implement such a measure, arguing instead that the public health crisis is best met by relying on personal responsibility.

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