Feb 19, 2021

President’s Biden’s Executive Order on Workplace Health and Safety

The overwhelming negative impact of COVID-19 on many companies is not news to any business entity. The Washington Post and Fortune.com reported a few months ago that at least 100,000 businesses in the US have permanently shut down due to the pandemic. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, just last month, reported that about 181,000 Canadian businesses could be shut permanently due to COVID-19, in addition to the nearly 60,000 Canadian businesses that became inactive in 2020. The number of affected businesses rises sharply if you consider numbers across the globe.

Certainly, the economic impact of COVID-19 on individuals, households, and many businesses, especially leisure, travel, and the hospitality industry, cannot be overstated. It gets even more alarming when we consider that roughly about a year into the pandemic, thousands of businesses are still temporarily shut, and for some of these businesses, these closures will become permanent, leading to bankruptcy and millions more layoffs. 

Even with the hope and promise of an effective vaccine and millions of people already vaccinated around the world, the only way for countries and businesses to get back on track will be to get employees into work safely and without retaliation on COVID-19 concerns. However, many employees are afraid of returning to work for fear of contracting COVID-19 from co-workers as well as the uncertainty of the adequacy of safety precautions taken by employers to protect them while at work. 

New Executive Order for Safety in the Workplace

Since returning workers safely to their workplace in some capacity is one of the key factors to restarting and reviving the economy, just a day after being sworn in, President Biden signed an “Executive Order on Protecting Workers’ Health and Safety”, directing the federal government to immediately adopt stronger safety guidelines to reduce the risk of workers contracting COVID-19 while in the workplace. The executive order mandated for the federal government to issue science-based guidelines like mask-wearing to reduce exposure to COVID-19, partner with state and local governments to protect public workers, enforce health and safety requirements for workers, and provide increased employer resources for employee safety. 

This is a positive step toward providing guidelines for companies on how to protect their workers as well as an assurance to workers that they will be adequately protected when they do return to the workplace. 

The executive order also mandated the Secretary of Labor and the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health to act within two weeks to: 

  1. Provide revised guidance to employers on workplace safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  2. Determining whether temporary emergency measures like wearing masks are needed in the workplace, and if so, issue a guidance by March 15, 2021.
  3. Review the current effort of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and identify any changes that can increase protection of workers and ensure this is enforced equitably. 
  4. Focus OSHA’s COVID-19 enforcement efforts on violations that put the greatest number of workers at risk.
  5. Along with local OSHA offices and other local labor offices, implement a multilingual outreach campaign on community level to keep workers and their representatives informed of their rights, especially in communities most impacted by the pandemic. 

 

For other category of workers who may be excluded from the general mandate, the executive order also requires that the Secretary of Labor, acting through the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, coordinate with states to ensure that their workers covered under section 18 of the OSHA act are protected from COVID-19 under the revised guidance or temporary measures, such as mask-wearing, set forth by OSHA. 

The executive order makes provisions for OSHA to work with state and local governments, which might not have plans that adequately cover workers, as well as partner with local government offices responsible for protecting workers and public employee unions, where applicable, to increase protection against COVID-19 for workers. 

Applicable federal and state agencies, including the Secretaries of Agriculture, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and Energy, will find avenues to ensure the protection of workers not covered under the act to ensure their workplace safety during the pandemic. Similar emergency temporary standards shall also be considered for coal and metal/non-metal mines by the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, and when necessary, issued. 

Updated OSHA Guidelines 

In response to the presidential executive order, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on the 29th of January, updated their guidance by mandating that employers should implement COVID-19 prevention programs in the workplace with recommendations for the best practices to include engaging with workers, union, and other representatives to develop a program that must include: 

  • Conducting a hazard assessment
  • Identifying a combination of measures that limit the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace
  • Adopting measures to ensure infected or potentially infected workers are separated and sent home
  • Protecting workers against retaliation when they raise COVID-19 related concerns  

 

This updated OSHA guidance, which also provides industry specific guidance and known as the “Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace”, is intended to inform, educate, and guide non-healthcare employers and workers with identifying and reducing risks of COVID-19 exposures and infections. Healthcare and emergency response workers and employees are covered under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance. The new OSHA guidelines also recommend things we know work to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including implementing social distance, installing barriers where physical distance is not possible, suppressing the spread by using face coverings, using personal protective equipment (PPE) when needed, improving ventilation, maintaining good hygiene, and proper cleaning/disinfection. 

Even though OSHA has prepared the guidance for planning purposes and as a basis for employers to identify and reduce risks of COVID-19 exposure and infection in the workplace, implementing this new guidance and determining the appropriate measure to adopt in your business and workplace can be challenging. Though the recommendations are advisory in nature, employers are expected to use this as a basis for identifying and eliminating hazards that can cause death or physical injury to their employees are part of the obligation to provide a safe work environment. Employers are also expected to comply with all safety and health standards and regulations set forth by OSHA or OSHA-approved representative. 

Since the guidance is new and will be updated as COVID-19 evolves, properly implementing all the necessary recommendations can be challenging. If you need to meet the new guidance and remain compliant, SafetyTek, can help you implement health and safety regulations. We have worked with thousands of companies to help them stay compliant. Get in touch with us and let’s see how we can help you.