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Biden Administration Turns to OSHA to Issue Guidance on COVID-19 Worker Safety Guidance

  • Among the COVID-19 related executive orders issued by Joe Biden is a commitment to use “science-based guidance” to reduce infections in the workplace
  • OSHA given two weeks to issue revised guidance to employers on workplace safety
  • Any recommended emergency temporary standards, such as mask requirements, to be issued by March 15

President Joe Biden is ordering the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to determine revised guidance for COVID-19 workplace safety within two weeks, declaring that ensuring the health and safety of U.S. workers is “a national priority and a moral imperative.”

The order, one of 10 Biden issued Thursday on the federal government’s COVID-19 response, commits to swift action to reduce infections in the workplace, “science-based guidance” on workplace safety, partnering with state governments on the issue, enforcing worker health and safety requirements, and supporting additional resources for employers to protect employees.

The Secretary of Labor, acting through the Assistant Secretary of OSHA, will determine revised guidance to employers and determine if any emergency temporary standards such as wearing a mask in the workplace are necessary. If so, these standards will be issued by March 15.

Biden is also asking the Labor Department to review OSHA enforcement actions on COVID-19 issues and make any recommendations on how they may be revised, launch a national program to concentrate enforcement on areas where the greatest number of workers are at risk, and conduct an outreach campaign to inform workers of their rights. The department will also coordinate with state governments, consult with other Cabinet leaders on how to protect workers not covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and review what emergency temporary standards might be necessary in coal or non-metal mines.

The order follows criticism by union leaders that OSHA was lax in the oversight of COVID-19 safety measures during the Trump administration, which also relaxed reporting requirements and limited inspections to higher risk industries.

OSHA guidance currently allows employers to determine whether or not workers should wear masks in the workplace, saying a company may determine that the mask could collect hazardous chemicals or exacerbate other hazards. It has also issued specific COVID-19 guidance for industries such as health care and construction and noted which OSHA standards apply COVID-19 worker protections.

There are also 28 OSHA-approved state plans, which the administration says have standards and enforcement protocols at least as effective as OSHA’s although the requirements may be different or more stringent. The Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development has directed non-essential employees to work from home and set up several rules for essential workers, including a mask requirement and rules for sanitation and social distancing.

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