Biden will ask OSHA to reconsider decision to skip emergency coronavirus standards

Dive Brief:

  • President-elect Joe Biden will ask the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to reconsider its refusal to issue emergency standards for COVID-19 workplace safety, according to a Dec. 29 statement.
  • The incoming administration will ask OSHA, which has so far declined to issue such standards, “to determine whether to establish an emergency temporary standard to keep workers safe from COVID-19,” Biden said.
  • He also said he would direct OSHA to target the worst violators, increase the number of inspectors and develop strategies for addressing the most dangerous workplace hazards.

Dive Insight:

OSHA can, under certain circumstances, issue emergency temporary standards that take effect immediately and remain in effect until it issues a permanent standard, according to the agency. The follow-up standard is “subject to the usual procedure for adopting a permanent standard except that a final ruling should be made within six months,” OSHA said on its website; additionally, temporary standards may be challenged in court.

Despite calls from worker advocates, OSHA has to date declined to issue any standard with respect to the coronavirus pandemic. A labor union organization asked a court to intervene but it refused, holding in June that while OSHA is authorized to issue emergency standards if it determines that workers are in grave danger, it is entitled to “considerable deference.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses, told the court at the time that the agency “reasonably decided that coupling OSHA’s existing safety standards with flexible, industry-specific guidance informed by evolving scientific understanding” was sufficient.

Biden’s announcement may come as no surprise, however. Fisher Phillips attorneys predicted in a November blog post that “Biden likely will work … to develop a COVID-19 standard if the pandemic continues to impact worker safety in early 2021, especially if no vaccine is immediately available.”

Although food manufacturing groups are hopeful that their workers will be among the next to receive the vaccine, the estimated timeline for when that will begin varies by state and, for many, is still undetermined. Activists in the food industry have advocated for the Trump administration to push OSHA to issue an emergency standard since early in the pandemic when meat plants became hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks. OSHA has also come under fire for not giving enough guidance to companies as the virus started to spread and for issuing small fines to meat plants where thousands of workers got the virus and some died.

Lillianna Byington contributed to this report. 

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