Biden Directs OSHA to Bolster Actions to Combat Pandemic
He also asked the agency to consider issuing emergency temporary standards.
President Biden directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Thursday to revise its coronavirus guidance and take other actions to protect workers from the ongoing pandemic.
Biden issued an executive order aimed at OSHA, a division of the Labor Department, which was criticized heavily during the pandemic under the Trump administration for not doing enough to protect workers and issuing “miniscule” fines. This order was one of many Biden has signed over the last few days aimed at combating the pandemic and resulting economic recession.
“For the past year, we couldn’t rely on the federal government to act with the urgency and focus and coordination we needed and we have seen the tragic cost of that failure,” Biden said on Thursday, while introducing his coronavirus relief plan. “For the millions of workers, many of whom are people of color, immigrants and low-wage workers, who continue to put their lives on the line and keep this country going through the pandemic, I’m calling for the enforcement of more stringent worker safety standards.”
The order directs OSHA to work with the appropriate agencies to: revise COVID guidelines for workplace safety within two weeks; consider if emergency temporary standards for COVID-19 are needed (if so, issue them by March 15); review OSHA’s enforcement practices for the pandemic and identify any needed changes; launch a national program centered on the agency’s enforcement protocols; and work with the Labor Department's public affairs and public engagement offices and all regional OSHA offices on a multilingual outreach campaign to educate workers on their rights.
It also says OSHA must work with states to possibly revise their specific occupational safety and health plans that are approved under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. For workers not covered under the act, the order directs the Agriculture, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation and Energy secretaries to “explore mechanisms...so that they remain healthy and safe on the job during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Lastly, the executive order calls on the Mine Safety and Health Administration, also within the Labor Department, to determine if temporary standards for COVID-19 are needed for mine workers.
Biden hasn’t named a nominee for OSHA yet, but tapped Jim Frederick, a former United Steelworkers safety official, to be the agency’s deputy assistant secretary and acting head. He also named Joseph Hughes Jr., former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ worker education and training program, to be deputy assistant secretary for pandemic and emergency response for OSHA. Amanda Edens stayed on as the agency’s career deputy assistant secretary.
“President Biden is taking the actions needed to stop this pandemic and reopen the country and the economy,” Dr. David Michaels, former Occupational Safety and Health Administration administrator from 2009 to 2017 who served on Biden’s transition COVID advisory board, told Government Executive on Friday. “Workplaces are one of the places where infections are transmitted and an OSHA emergency standard is an important first step in protecting workers and stopping transmission.” He has been advocating for the temporary standard for a year.
The National Employment Law Project also commended the directive and hopes the administration will decide to issue temporary emergency standards.
“Due to the negligence of employers and the failures of the Trump administration, workplaces have been a significant source of COVID-19 spread, especially in industries where workers are underpaid,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the organization, in a statement. “Workers in meat and poultry processing are among those who have suffered most greatly. This order will have a significant impact on improving the health and lives of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and immigrant workers who are disproportionately represented in many of the essential industries with the highest risk of spread of COVID-19.”