Tennessee Workplace Inspectors Refuse to Cancel COVID Rules for Fear of Federal Takeover

Oct 21, 2021

Tennessee adopted federal rules for masking, testing and distancing in hospitals and nursing homes on August 24.
Credit Maury Regional

The agency tasked with enforcing workplace safety rules in Tennessee has rejected a directive from state lawmakers to abandon federal COVID rules adopted in late August.

On Monday, the Joint Government Operations Committee voted for a “negative recommendation” toward the emergency rules, which govern masking, testing and distancing in hospitals and nursing homes. But at the hearing, officials with the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration warned that if the state refused to enforce the safety rules, federal authorities would likely intervene.

“The statutory language regarding rules does not authorize the withdrawal or the stay of a rule once the rule has become effective,” writes Tennessee Labor Commissioner Jeff McCord in a letter to Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, who chairs the Joint Government Operations Committee.

Federal OSHA is already moving to make an example of three states that never adopted the rules, warning them on Tuesday of an impending takeover of enforcement. The three states — Arizona, South Carolina and Utah — are led by Republican governors.

Tennessee workplace officials say they’re trying to avoid a similar takeover.

“It is increasingly important that TN-OSHA remain in full standing as a state plan without inviting additional federal oversight, federal interpretation and federal enforcement of safety and health standards in Tennessee,” McCord writes.

The pushback is a precursor to the looming battle over vaccines. OSHA is expected to enforce the Biden administration’s rule requiring vaccination or weekly testing in companies with more than 100 employees.