The Biden Administration has instructed federal workplace safety officials to do more to help halt the spread of the coronavirus on the job.
On his first full day on office, President Joseph Biden signed an executive order asking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to increase its enforcement of current safety rules and consider mandating that employers implement additional safeguards.
The OSHA order was one of 10 executive orders Biden issued. Others included orders calling on federal departments to issue guidance to help schools reopen and expedite the testing and production of protective equipment
“The Federal Government must take swift action to reduce the risk that workers may contract COVID-19 in the workplace. That will require issuing science-based guidance to help keep workers safe from COVID-19 exposure, including with respect to mask-wearing; partnering with state and local governments to better protect public employees; enforcing worker health and safety requirements; and pushing for additional resources to help employers protect employees,” stated the introduction to the order to OSHA.
The order calls on OSHA , which is part of the Department of Labor, to work with state agencies and with secretaries of other federal agencies including Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and Energy to “explore mechanisms to protect workers not protected” so that they remain healthy and safe on the job during the pandemic.
By March 4 OSHA is to issue revised guidance to employers on workplace safety related to the pandemic and also consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19, including with respect to masks in the workplace, are necessary. If such emergency standards are determined to be necessary, OSHA must issue them by March 15.
Labor unions, many of which supported Biden in the presidential race, regularly pressed the former Trump Administration’s OSHA to do more, including adopt emergency temporary standards for workplace safety regarding COVID-19. The Trump Administration resisted issuing such standards that Biden has now ordered OSHA to consider. Emergency temporary standards raise the bar by laying out mandatory and specific steps employers must take and they speed up enforcement.
Unions also criticized Trump’s OSHA for being reluctant to inspect and fine employers for lax safety. OSHA can only fine employers for violating workplace safety rules after it conducts inspections and investigations.
Under the Trump Administration, OSHA had a policy of only inspecting workplaces in high-risk industries such as healthcare. In May, it said it was expanding its COVID-19 inspections to other industries.
In early April, OSHA eased the recording requirements for businesses other than healthcare, first responders and prisons. In May, OSHA said it would again require all businesses to record COVID-19 as a workplace illness where the employer could reasonably determine the infection occurred at work
Trump’s OSHA has been perhaps most criticized for its handling of the safety issues in the meatpacking industry, which President Trump ordered to re-open on April 28. Coronavirus infection rates among workers at meatplants ran high. As many as one in 12 cases of Covid-19 in the early stage of the pandemic were linked to outbreaks at meatpacking plants and subsequent spread in surrounding communities, according to a study. The Trump Administration resisted mandatory safety regulations and continued with voluntary guidelines.
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