Federal agencies Leadership

What’s ahead for OSHA?

Worker safety experts discuss possible changes under Biden administration

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With each new White House administration comes change in Washington.

When President-elect Joe Biden takes office Jan. 20, those changes will include a new approach at OSHA, according to prominent worker safety experts – starting with how to abate the risk of COVID-19 infection among employees in various industries.

“COVID-19 has affected all aspects of the United States,” said former OSHA administrator David Michaels, who directed the agency during the Obama administration and in November was named to Biden’s Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. “It’s a worker safety crisis. We want to be able to open the economy and expand the economy to get incomes back for so many reasons. But before you can take steps, you need a plan.”

The new administration’s plan is generally expected to begin with OSHA issuing an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases, requiring employers to take certain measures to protect workers from on-the-job exposure to the coronavirus.

During a November roundtable discussion with Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and business and labor leaders, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called an enforceable COVID-19-related ETS “one of the best ways OSHA can reestablish its mission … to protect workers. We cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Although protecting workers from COVID-19 likely will be the agency’s highest priority, OSHA’s plate under the new Biden administration will be quite full.

Tackling COVID-19

Under the Trump administration, OSHA published more than 20 interim guidance documents related to COVID-19 for various occupational groups, including airline operations, construction, retail, oil and gas, and manufacturing. According to the agency’s website, however, the documents “are not a standard or regulation, and create no new legal obligations.”

Associate Editor Barry Bottino discusses this article in the January 2021 episode of Safety+Health's “On the Safe Side” podcast.

To some, this doesn’t ensure employers follow the worker safety recommendations, and fuels the need for a strong, comprehensive ETS from OSHA.

“We need a strong rule from the top,” Travis Parsons, associate director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America, said during a Nov. 19 National Safety Council webinar on the future of OSHA. “That would set the expectations for everyone – for workers and employers across the board. We have good and bad actors out there, and, unfortunately, the bad actors aren’t going to follow just guidelines.”

Jane Terry, vice president of government affairs at NSC, pointed to ETSs recently enacted in California, Michigan, Oregon and Virginia.

“The work that’s been done in the states that have an ETS in place will likely be a good guide,” she said during the webinar.

Kevin Cannon, director of safety and health services for the Associated General Contractors of America and chair of OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health, added that having multiple states with an ETS has added some hurdles for AGC, which has members in all 50 states.

“We have members complying with the Virginia rule, with the Michigan rule, the Oregon rule and the California rule,” he said. “It’s inevitable that early on (in the new administration) we’ll see an ETS for COVID-19.”

During Michaels’ tenure, OSHA was working on an infectious diseases standard to protect health care workers. That work could be revived, the experts said, and expanded to include numerous occupations.

However, the safety and health of workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just the job of one federal agency, Michaels said during a Nov. 11 webinar hosted by the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities.

“It has to be beyond OSHA,” he said. “We have to be thinking about an all-government effort led by the Labor Department. You can be very successful involving other agencies. Hopefully, we’ll start to see that in January.”

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