US: Biden's OSHA issues new COVID-19 worker safety guidelines, considers enforceable orders

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The Biden administration released new guidelines for workplace safety Friday morning, in what Department of Labor officials said was a first step toward revamping national protections for workers from COVID-19.

The new guidelines state that every employer across the nation should implement a COVID-19 prevention program. They list 15 potential instructions, including how to evaluate workplaces for hazards, isolate workers, and clean and disinfect workplaces.

However, like similar guidelines the Trump administration published last year, the new guidelines are recommendations that do not carry the weight of law, something worker advocacy groups have pressed the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration to implement.

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“This guidance is not a standard or regulation and it creates no new legal obligations,” the guidance reads.

But in an interview with USA TODAY, Jim Frederick, the newly-appointed deputy assistant secretary of OSHA, said the new guidelines will be followed by additional actions from the agency. In a Jan. 21 executive order, President Joseph Biden instructed the agency to issue the new guidelines by early February. He also tasked OSHA with considering whether it should issue nationwide emergency temporary standards, which would carry legal requirements for employers. That’s due by March 15.

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“Stopping the spread and protecting workers from COVID-19 is without question the only way to get the economy and our lives back to where we all want to be,” Frederick said. “The biggest takeaway from the updated guidance is that implementing a COVID-19 prevention program is the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus. Employers should implement COVID-19 protection programs tailored to their workplace.”

Asked about the status of any potential emergency order to turn those suggestions into requirements, Ann Rosenthal, senior advisor at OSHA, said Friday the agency has been focused on creating the new guidelines during the first week of the Biden administration. M. Patricia Smith, senior counselor to the Secretary of Labor, added that the agency is planning “in the next few weeks,” to reach out to unions, businesses, and other stakeholders before reaching a decision on emergency standards.

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Frederick said the agency is still considering the items in Biden’s order as well as assessing how to utilize its current tools.

“The guidance issued today is the first step in that process but certainly is not going to be the last step in the process,” Frederick said.

At least one industry group said the new guidelines won't change what employers are doing.

Sarah Little, spokeswoman for the National Meat Institute, said member employers have already implemented these guidelines and more and that positive cases are down across the meatpacking industry compared to numbers in the general population.

"The vaccine is still the best tool to keep workers safe and the industry is fighting to see that employees can receive this critical protection," she said.

​Union leaders and worker advocates touted the new guidelines.

Mark Lauritsen, director of food processing, meatpacking and manufacturing at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said that most of the suggestions laid out in the guidelines are already in place at meatpacking plants and grocers where its members work. The guidelines contain many references to existing OSHA workplace safety materials created under the Trump administration.

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However, Lauritsen said he felt the new guidelines are “a little more forceful” than communications under the Trump administration, pointing to language meant to protect workers who report safety hazards from retaliation. He anticipates more to come from the new administration, and believes an emergency standard — with enforceable rules — is still needed to ensure workplace safety, particularly in plants without a union presence to advocate for protections.

“It’s a really important first step forward,” Lauritsen said.

Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff and senior policy adviser at OSHA and now director of the National Employment Law Project’s worker health and safety program, expressed similar sentiment.

“We’re encouraged that the agency is now going to take a real role in the administration’s COVID-19 response plan. I think this guidance is saying, we’re back. OSHA’s here,” Berkowitz said.

“OSHA’s guidance has always been so helpful and it’s always been up to date and it’s always been clear. That just hasn’t been the case for the last nine months on COVID. This is really a first step.”

Rosenthal said Friday that the new guidelines call for workers to be more involved in developing a prevention plan and remove a pyramid of risk that OSHA used under the Trump administration, which categorized workplaces as high-, medium- or low-risk and made different recommendations based on that.

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“There’s not language that says you should consider certain actions quite so much as the Trump guidances had,” she said. “It says you should do certain things.”

Worker advocates have said that OSHA’s actions, whether recommended or required, hinge on the agency’s enforcement. Under the Trump administration, OSHA officials touted the so-called “General Duty” clause, a federal requirement that employers keep workers safe from all known hazards.

But enforcement of that requirement was rare in industries like meatpacking, in which a prior USA TODAY investigation found worker deaths were going uninvestigated. As of Jan. 11, OSHA had cited just five meatpacking plants for COVID-19 violations, issuing a total of $69,000 in fines, although at least 240 industry workers had died, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Asked whether OSHA intended to increase inspections or enforcement actions, agency officials Friday did not offer specifics and cited a need to ensure OSHA inspectors are also kept safe from coronavirus. The Trump administration also used that argument to justify a shift toward virtual inspections of workplaces, which worker advocates say are inadequate.

Regardless, Lauritsen said Biden’s OSHA immediately engaged with his union and he expects the agency to take a different tack.

“We’re going to work with the Biden administration and this Department of Labor to make sure we do have active enforcement,” Lauritsen said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's OSHA issues new COVID-19 worker safety guidelines, considers enforceable orders

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