The pandemic has transformed workplaces across the country, but particularly in cities like San Francisco, above.

The pandemic has transformed workplaces across the country, but particularly in cities like San Francisco, above. Noah Berger / AP

OSHA Prepares New Workforce Safety Standards for COVID-19

Advocates and Democratic lawmakers have been calling for new rules for a year.

The Labor Department announced on Monday evening it sent a draft of the much-anticipated federal safety standards to protect workers during the pandemic to the White House for review.  

President Biden on January 21 issued an executive order directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the Labor Department, to revise its coronavirus guidance and take other actions to protect workers from the ongoing pandemic. This included considering whether new safety rules under an "emergency temporary standard" for COVID-19 were needed and if so, issuing them by March 15. OSHA was heavily criticized during the Trump administration for not doing enough to protect workers from COVID-19 and issuingminiscule” fines

“Today, OSHA sent draft standards to the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for review,” said a Labor Department spokesperson on Monday evening. “OSHA has been working diligently on its proposal and has taken the appropriate time to work with its science agency partners, economic agencies, and others in the U.S. government to get this proposed emergency standard right.”

The Labor Department did not respond to a request for details of the draft. 

While OSHA took several other COVID-19 related actions under the Biden administration, it missed its deadline in announcing the emergency temporary standard by several weeks. Marty Walsh was confirmed as Labor Secretary on March 22 and took on review of the process, the Labor Department previously told Government Executive.

Work safety advocates, former OSHA officials and Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly called for a temporary standard, first under President Trump and then under Biden. The Trump administration deemed new rules unnecessary, whereas the Biden team explicitly called for new rules during the campaign.  

“I’ve been fighting for [the Labor Department] to issue enforceable COVID workplace safety rules for a year —and I’ve pushed for the [inspector general] to investigate OSHA's failures,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., tweeted. “This emergency temporary standard is long overdue but desperately needed — it should be approved now.” 

Jordan Barab, who served as OSHA deputy assistant secretary from 2009-2017, has also been calling for the standard and pointed out there is “still no date for issuance of the long overdue rule.” 

OMB'S Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is expected to take about two weeks for the review “before it publishes the requirements, which are then likely to take effect immediately,” according to Politico. “The rules are expected to require employers to supply their workers with masks, have a written plan to avert exposure in the workplace and take other precautions that could kick up complaints from businesses over costs as more states relax pandemic restrictions.”

Fourteen states already have some form of worker safety protections, according to a tracker from the National Law Employment Protection.

Meanwhile, some Republicans have expressed opposition to federal standards, arguing they are not needed now that vaccines are available and it would “reverse the Trump administration’s effective policy and ignore the substantial efforts and investments employers and employees have successfully made, based on science-backed guidelines, to keep their workplaces safe.”

The Government Accountability Office noted in a report published in February that OSHA hasn’t used its authority to issue an emergency temporary standard since 1983.  

The House Education and Labor Committee’s panel on workforce protections has a hearing scheduled for Friday to discuss the status of the emergency temporary standard for the coronavirus. So far, there are no witnesses listed.