Biden signs executive order directing OSHA to bolster COVID-19 workplace rules

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Biden signs executive order directing OSHA to bolster COVID-19 workplace rules

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Among the deluge of executive orders signed by President Joe Biden within his first 48 hours of populating the Oval Office, a number were focused on a quite obvious and pressing task: Making significant, life-saving progress in the weeks and months ahead as the United States continues to battle the spread of the coronavirus.

One particular executive order signed on January 21 stands to benefit the construction trade, as it requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which issued safety recommendations but assumed a largely hands-off approach under the Trump administration with regard to the pandemic, to review workplace safety enforcement efforts established during the COVID-19 crisis and enact new, science-based guidelines to better help keep workers safe on the job.

Referring to the health and safety of workers as being a “national priority and a moral imperative,” the Protective Worker Health and Safety Executive Order goes on to state that the federal government must provide “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.” Updated guidance from OSHA must be released by the Labor Secretary (union-friendly Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has been tapped by Biden for the role) within two weeks while any emergency temporary standards that are deemed necessary, such as the compulsory wearing of masks in the workplace, must be implemented by March 15.

“Healthcare workers and other essential workers, many of whom are people of color and immigrants, have put their lives on the line during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic,” reads the order. “It is the policy of my Administration to protect the health and safety of workers from COVID-19.”

In addition to putting renewed pressure on OSHA, the order compels the Labor Department to work with a multitude of other federal departments—Energy, Agriculture, Transportation, and Health and Human Services—to investigate methods in which other classes of workers can be more adequately protected from the virus as new variants continue to emerge as mass vaccinations are underway.

As detailed by Construction Dive, emergency temporary standards enforceable by the OSHA would streamline and simplify safety workplace rules, which, as of now, do exist but are cobbled together from state and local regulations with scant federal oversight. In other words, everyone would at long last be on the same page, rule-wise, and be better equipped to track and report workplace outbreaks that have plagued the construction industry for the past ten months.

“By issuing this overdue and desperately needed executive order on his first full day in office, President Biden is clearly prioritizing strong COVID-19 protections for working people,” said Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO’s president, in a statement shared by Construction Dive. “Strong enforceable standards would require employers to develop workplace safety plans, implement science-based protection measures, train workers and report outbreaks.”

What’s more, the order calls on the Department of Labor to launch a multilingual public engagement blitz to help better inform workers of their rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. As detailed in the order, the awareness campaign “shall include engagement with labor unions, community organizations, and industries, and place a special emphasis on communities hit hardest by the pandemic.”