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Biden Directs OSHA to Step Up COVID-19 Safety Measures by February 4

Coronavirus Labor & Employment

On his second day in the Oval Office, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety directing the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to intensify its efforts to protect employees from COVID-19 infection in the workplace.

Controlling the COVID-19 crisis is the Biden administration’s top priority, and the President wasted no time calling the Department of Labor and OSHA into action. Declaring the health and safety of workers “a national priority and a moral imperative”, President Biden’s Executive Order calls upon the federal government to take swift action to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace.  This 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”.

Today’s Executive Order directs OSHA to take the following actions with respect to private sector and federal employees protected by the OSH Act:

  • Issue revised COVID-19 workplace safety guidance by February 4, 2021;
  • Consider whether any emergency temporary standards on COVID-19 are necessary, including standards governing mask use in the workplace, and issue any such standards by March 15, 2021;
  • Review the agency’s enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 and identify any short, medium, and long-term changes that could be made to better protect workers and ensure equity in enforcement;
  • Launch a national program to focus OSHA enforcement efforts on COVID-19-related violations that put the largest number of workers at serious risk or that violate the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s (“OSHA Act”) anti-retaliation principles; and
  • Coordinate with the DOL’s public affairs office and OSHA’s regional offices nationwide to develop and deliver a multilingual outreach campaign informing employees and their unions of their rights, with an emphasis on communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

Though OSHA does not police health and safety compliance for Illinois public sector employees who are governed by the Illinois Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Executive Order directs OSHA to work with state and local government authorities and with the unions representing public sector workers to bolster COVID-19 protections for those employees. The President’s much-anticipated COVID-19 relief plan is expected to go a step further and ask Congress to authorize OSHA to issue COVID-19 safety standards covering frontline public sector employees at the state and local level, which would be an unprecedented expansion of OSHA’s enforcement authority.

Since the pandemic began last Spring, OSHA has been under fire for failing to implement COVID-19-specific safety standards and its limited inspection and enforcement efforts. Enforcement data released by the agency shows that COVID-19-related inspections and citations have focused primarily on healthcare and long-term care facilities. Employers should prepare to feel OSHA’s presence, as the Biden administration has promised to increase staffing at the local OSHA office level. Franczek P.C. will continue to monitor and report on all labor and employment developments under the new administration.