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To Safeguard U.S. Workplaces, New Emergency Standards Cannot Come Soon Enough

New York, NY – U.S. workers continue to get sick and die from COVID-19 largely because the Trump White House refused to safeguard them with federally enforceable protections — and that isn’t going to immediately change with President Joe Biden’s Executive Order aimed at Protecting Worker Health & Safety.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration [OSHA] needed to move quickly months ago, to establish a new Emergency Temporary Standard [ETS] governing workplace protections in the time of COVID-19. Doing that could have helped curb the virus’ spread, and halt the mounting death toll that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention [CDC] now predicts will soon reach a half-million people.

Committee on Education and Labor Chair Bobby Scott [VA-District 3] called for the implementation of a new ETS as far back as last January, expressing concerns in a letter to then U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, that OSHA’s Infectious Disease Standard had been left to “languish” for about a decade, and warning “OSHA must take swift action to protect health care workers, and by extension, the American public.”

“The safety of America’s frontline health care workers and, by extension, the health of the entire nation will depend on OSHA’s ability to ensure the safety of the nation’s health care infrastructure,” the Virginia representative wrote. “Absent timely action, OSHA will be failing frontline health care workers, its mission, and the nation.”

That sense of urgency, coupled with the botched rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program, has only grown more acute with time. Still, there is a process, and it could be another two months before the habitually under-sourced OSHA actually establishes the kinds of enforceable workplace protections that Trump was loathe to enact. 

“We want more, of course — we know that there is an extreme amount of urgency,” National Council for Occupational Safety and Health [COSH] Co-Executive Director Jessica Martinez told me. “There is a process of setting a standard and we hope that it moves quickly through the bureaucracy of government. I know that National COSH is doing everything it can to ensure that government is taking action.”

Several states are not waiting around for the feds and have already moved to expand worker protections in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. California established a new emergency standard for COVID prevention on November 19. 

Although more than 25 million cases of COVID-19 nationwide attest to the need, insiders argue that Biden is prohibited from circumventing required analysis and outright directing OSHA to establish a new ETS because employers would only challenge its validity in court. 

“There is nothing on paper at this point that makes any of this proposal enforceable,” Martinez conceded. “Now, with that said, I think that it’s important to note several factors: One is that the government has been intentional about including these guidelines — something we have not heard from the former administration. Second, there is some real leadership that has been announced — folks that have been committed many years to understanding the importance of engaging workers, worker advocates and also the process of putting priorities around worker safety and health.”

In addition to issuing the executive order on Protecting Worker Health & Safety on his first full day as president, Biden also tapped Jim Frederick to be OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary; Chip Hughes to serve as deputy assistant secretary for Pandemic Emergency Response; and Ann Rosenthal as senior advisor. All three have extensive backgrounds in worker health and safety. 

“We’re hopeful that with this leadership it is a step in the right direction and there will be a more concrete commitment to making many of these processes more enforceable,” Martinez added. “Also, some clear guidance in ways that allows workers to have a seat at the table.”

An interest in workplace safety and competent leadership have never been, and will not now be enough to safeguard American workers, however. That is going to take the kind of “street heat” that earlier this month compelled the California State Assembly to introduce a bill aimed at protecting fast food workers and, most recently, secured a roughly 10-percent raise for members of Teamsters Local 202 working at the Hunts Point Produce Market in New York City. 

“Only strong worker participation is really going to get anyone anywhere,” a congressional aide with extensive knowledge of OSHA’s operations recently told me. “It’s harder than just snapping fingers — nothing happens by itself in Washington.”

On January 19, the Teamsters released a set of national legislative priories that include enhancing OSHA’s enforcement capabilities, as well as establishing a new ETS. 

National COSH is preparing the release of its own national agenda for worker health and safety on February 3. 

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