President Joe Biden in late January issued an executive order on mask-wearing and other COVID-19 issues, tasking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) with creating new guidance for workplace safety.
Issued Jan. 21, the executive order aims to combat COVID-19 through:
- Partnering with state and local officials
- Enforcing employee health and safety requirements
- Pushing for additional employer resources
Biden Executive Order on COVID-19 Protections
More specifically, Biden’s order offered broad changes that could impact employers, including:
- Revising COVID-19 workplace safety guidance within two weeks of Jan. 21
- Determining whether workplace mask-wearing is necessary and issuing standards by March 15
- Reviewing enforcement efforts
- Launching a national program to focus enforcement efforts on workers at serious risk or facing employer retaliation
- Coordinating with other federal bodies to educate workers about their rights
The new administration also wants to see states with COVID-19 workplace safety plans to align their efforts with new federal guidance. For states without coronavirus plans in place, Biden wants to work with local officials bolster protections for public-sector workers.
Meanwhile, OSHA on Jan. 29 issued fresh guidance on workplace safety “to reflect developments in science, best practices and standards.”
“More than 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions of people are out of work as a result of this crisis. Employers and workers can help our nation fight and overcome this deadly pandemic by committing themselves to making their workplaces as safe as possible,” Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor M. Patricia Smith said in a release. “The recommendations in OSHA’s updated guidance will help us defeat the virus, strengthen our economy and bring an end to the staggering human and economic toll that the coronavirus has taken on our nation.”
Officials urge employers to create and implement a COVID-19 prevention plan, noting the elements it should include:
- Conducting hazard assessments
- Identifying control measures to limit the spread of the virus
- Adopting absence policies to encourage potentially infected workers to stay home
- Ensuring COVID-19 policies and procedures are communicated to both English and non-English speaking employees
- Implementing protections from retaliation for workers who raise COVID-19-related concerns
U.S. Department of Labor officials noted that the guidance is not a standard or regulation and it creates no new legal obligations.
Employers and OSHA’s Workplace Guidance
For employers, OSHA outlined the role they should take in response to COVID-19.
The most effective prevention programs, according to OSHA, include the following elements:
- Assigning a workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 issues on the employer’s behalf
- Determining where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work
- Identification of a combination of measures that will limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, in line with the principles of the hierarchy of controls
- Considering protections for workers at higher risk through policies and practices. Employees with disabilities may be legally entitled to “reasonable accommodations” that protect them from the risk of contracting COVID-19
- Establishing a system for communicating effectively with workers no matter the language they speak
- Relaying how COVID-19 is spread and the importance of physical distancing, wearing masks and hand washing
- Asking potentially infected employees to stay home, while ensuring policies are not punitive
- Encouraging remote work when possible
- Isolating employees who show symptoms at work
- Performing enhanced cleaning and disinfection after people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 have been in the facility
- Following OSHA standards for personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard communication
- Providing guidance from state or local officials on screening and testing
- Recording and reporting COVID-19 infections and deaths
- Implementing protections from retaliation
- Making a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccination series available for free
- Not distinguishing between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not. Vaccinated employees must continue to follow protective measures
Check out OSHA’s webpage on new guidance for more specifics.
Many employers have taken steps to help lessen the impact of COVID-19.
But the new directive from the president and updated OSHA guidelines illustrates how the new administration will approach the pandemic. Employers should monitor federal activity, as well as state and local laws and guidance, to ensure compliance and maintain as healthy a workplace as possible.