President Biden is calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue new safety guidelines for workplaces to keep workers safe from COVID-19.
“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,” says the new executive order. “It is the policy of my Administration to protect the health and safety of workers from COVID-19.”
OSHA guidance is currently fairly limited. Employers do not, for example, have to report outbreaks in their facilities. Many regulations are left up to states. And in some cases, standards from before the pandemic are being stretched to cover COVID-19 dangers.
For manufacturing in particular, OSHA guidelines ask employers to “allow” workers to wear masks.
Responding to complaints
The nation’s nursing union has made a number of complaints, including claims that hospitals are asking nurses to reuse disposable masks. The former head of OSHA, Dr. David Michaels, told NPR that employers might find it cheaper to replace sick workers than to make the effort to keep them well in the first place.
The new executive order asks OSHA to work with a variety of organizations to review current workplace responses to COVID-19 and to develop new guidance. Once new standards are in place, employers who don’t keep meet the requirements will face fines.
This should mitigate the resistance to the cost of making changes in the workplace environment.
The biggest concern in manufacturing is close contact between workers for 8 to 12 hours at a time. The Centers for Disease Control recommend keeping workers 6 feet apart, and using physical barriers.
Ventilation should be upgraded if necessary, disinfection of the spaces workers occupy should be undertaken regularly, and all workers should have personal protection gear such as masks. The CDC has many more recommendations, which are currently stronger and more specific than OSHA’s requirements.
OSHA welcomes updates
Dr. Michaels told NPR that he has been asking for the power to update guidance for the past year. It’s expected that OSHA will be enthusiastic about the chance to take more action than they have been allowed to do in recent months.
Biden has also established a Safer Federal Workforce Task Force to make quick changes to the regulations covering federal workers, a group which is under the president’s control in a way that private companies are not.