What’s the Deal with COVID-19 Testing Mandates and First Responders

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Earlier this month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published an emergency temporary standard (ETS) in an effort to protect employees of large employers against COVID-19 by encouraging vaccination. The ETS requires employers with 100 employees or more to require their workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or allow them to get tested weekly and wear a mask in the workplace. Since the order was published, there has been confusion about which businesses and employees this rule applies to. More specifically, what does it mean for first responders in California? 

Cal/OSHA ATD Standard

The confusion stems from the California Division of OSHA’s (Cal/OSHA) Aerosol Transmissible Disease (ATD) Standard (California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 5199) that came into effect in 2009. The safety laws under the ATD Standard apply to California employers who have employees with occupational exposure to infectious diseases spread by inhalable particles and droplets. Under the Cal/OSHA ATD Standard, employers are required to protect their workers by creating written safety plans, providing protective equipment as needed, and training employees on safety procedures. Occupational exposure refers to exposure from work-related activity or working conditions that is reasonably expected to increase the risk of contracting any disease caused by aerosol transmissible pathogens if protective measures aren’t in place.

Because first responders have occupational exposure to aerosol transmissible diseases, they are covered by the requirements of section 5199 and not the federal ETS, except for those in states with OSHA-approved state plans, like California. 


California has its own ETS standard that applies to most employers, employees, and all places of employment, including first responders. 

There are a few differences between OSHA’s federal ETS and Cal/OSHA ETS. For one, the federal ETS requires unvaccinated employees to be tested at least once per week, while California’s order does not mandate weekly testing. Instead, it only requires testing for outbreaks and potentially exposed employees with close contact with an infected person (unless they are asymptomatic and fully vaccinated or have recently recovered from COVID-19. Also, the federal ETS does not require employers to provide employee testing, while California’s order requires employers to make testing available at no cost. Employees must also be paid for the time they spend testing. 

Additionally, under the Cal/OSHA ETS standard, the virus that causes COVID-19 is classified as a disease or pathogen that requires isolation, subjecting the virus to stricter control standards than disease requiring only droplet precautions.

First Responders and Testing Mandates

As of today, testing mandates vary between counties and even within cities. Certain counties, like Almeda County Department of Public Health, require first responders to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or consent to weekly testing and wear a mask. Marin County Public Health also announced a vaccine and testing mandate.

The City of Los Angeles has a strict vaccine mandate for city employees, including first responders. They are required to get vaccinated by December 18th. Until that date, unvaccinated employees must be tested twice weekly for a cost of $65 per test, deducted from their paychecks.  

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